In the case of Lyndsey Olson v John Lesch, No. A18-1694 (Minn. Ct. App, 2019), the Minnesota Court of Appeals clarified when legislative immunity and the speech or debate clause of the Minnesota Constitution shield legislators from liability.
This issue was a matter of first impression for the court; therefore, it looked to federal precedent.
At issue in this case is a letter state representative John Lesch sent to the mayor of St. Paul in 2018 in which he made alleged defamatory comments concerning the St. Paul city attorney, Lyndsay Olson. Olson filed suit claiming defamation per se, Lesch filed a motion to dismiss based on legislative immunity or the speech or debate clause, the district court denied the motion, Lesch appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that:
A legislator’s actions must be within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity in order to warrant legislative immunity […] or the speech and debate clause of the Minnesota Constitution. Id.
Legislative activity was not involved in the alleged defamatory letter, though it was typed on official letterhead because, “nothing in our record indicates that the letter was essential to deliberations occurring in the legislature or part of the deliberative process. Id. citing Hutchinson v Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111, 99. C. Ct. 2675, 2686 (1979). Since the legislature was not dealing with issues surrounding the allegedly defamatory material, the above immunities do not apply. However, the court noted that
“had Lesch read his letter aloud on the floor of the legislature, his comments would be wholly protected by the speech or debate clause.” Id.