Two categories of privilege exist as defenses against defamation claims--absolute privilege and conditional or "qualified" privilege. Both types of privilege are broadly recognized across the United States, and generally result from the court's determination that statements made in particular contexts or on certain occasions should be encouraged despite the risk that the statements might be defamatory. Qualified privilege, and not absolute privilege, applies to a Minnesota watershed district board, a subordinate government body.
The Marshall County District Court, Minnesota, granted respondent watershed district board members' motion for judgment on the pleadings on appellant coworkers' defamation action, holding that as board members, they were protected by an absolute legislative privilege. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed. The coworkers appealed. The coworkers argued that the board members may claim the benefit only of a qualified privilege, and therefore may avoid liability for defamatory statements only by showing their good faith and lack of malice.
Do members of watershed district boards enjoy absolute immunity from suits?
The supreme court noted that given its refusal to extend an absolute privilege to elected city councils or county boards, there was no reason to extend absolute privilege to appointed watershed district boards. Limiting watershed district board members to a qualified privilege better served the people of Minnesota. There was no compelling need to extend the absolute privilege without any evidence that the qualified privilege was insufficient to protect members of watershed district boards.