Q During a recent council meeting, a council member made some accusations against one of our public employees. He essentially accused this employee of illegal and unethical conduct. There is not, as far as I know, any current investigation into the actions of the employee, so the council member was not basing his accusations on anything like a lawsuit or indictment. Now the employee is suing the council member for defamation. Is there any guidance on this issue?
A Elected officials enjoy a qualified privilege to make statements during public proceedings that, in many cases, protects them from lawsuit. Our courts have found an overriding public interest in protecting certain persons from lawsuits, so that they are not forced to self-censor and may speak and write freely.
“In ‘narrowly defined instances,’ where the public interest in unrestrained communication outweighs the reputation interests of individuals, a privilege will work to defeat the right of redress.” Orso v. Goldberg, 284 N.J.Super. 446, (App. Div. 1995). In that case, a council member accused members of the police department, including the chief, of criminal conduct. After filing suit, the Appellate Division found that the statements made by the council member were privileged, and as such, he could not be sued for defamation.
The Court said it was clear that statements made by a public official during the course of a public meeting were entitled to privilege. Coleman v. Newark Morning Ledger Co., 29 N.J. 357, 379, (1959) adopts a similar rule to the one found in the Restatement of Torts: “The publication of defamatory matter concerning another in a report of an official action or proceeding or of a meeting open to the public that deals with a matter of public concern is privileged if the report is accurate and complete or a fair abridgement of the occurrence is reported.” This type of legislative immunity applies not only the state and federal legislators, but to municipal council members as well.
This privilege is not absolute, however. The statement must not be made with actual malice; that is, a public official will not be protected by a defamatory statement that they know to be untrue, or that is made with reckless disregard for the truth.
Q My town, which had been a dry town for some time, recently decided to permit liquor sales. We will hold hearings soon for the awarding of licenses. However, someone on council raised concerns about renewing licenses. Do we have the authority to deny a license renewal, and if so, what are some reasons for denial?
A It is important to remember that these types of licenses are “a privilege; property rights are not involved, and no licensee has a vested right to subsequent terms.” 279 Club, Inc. v. Municipal Bd. of Alcoholic Beverage Control of Newark, 73 N.J.Super. 15 (App. Div. 1962).
A municipality does indeed have authority to deny a liquor license renewal. Courts will give municipalities deference in their decisions not to renew a license. “The renewal of a liquor license rests in the sound discretion of the licensing authority, and unless the evidence clearly indicates an abuse of that discretion a reviewing court should not interfere.”
Prior infractions of the law are a common reason to deny a license renewal
This column is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as legal advice.