Supreme Court Adopts Absolute Privilege For Cabinet-Level Officials In Defamation Suits

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that cabinet-level state officials have absolute immunity from defamation claims for speech that arises out of the performance of their official duties.

Zoyle Jones, a former employee of the Tennessee Department of Correction, sued the State for defamation and other claims after former TDOC Commissioner George Little spoke to the media about Jones’s demotion. The demotion was in the wake of allegations and investigations into Jones’s alleged improprieties in double-billing his travel to the State and a private organization. The Commissioner’s comments referenced two letters that he had sent to Jones about the double-billing controversy and the demotion. 

The Tennessee Claims Commission dismissed Jones’s other legal claims, but did not dismiss the defamation claim.

In the appellate proceedings, the State contended that the Tennessee Supreme Court should adopt an absolute privilege, which provides complete immunity to a defendant for the alleged defamatory statements. Jones argued that the Court should rule that state officials have a weaker qualified privilege that may be overcome if the claimant presents evidence of ill will or malice. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously determined that a rule of absolute immunity should apply to cabinet-level state officials in defamation claims arising out of statements made while performing their official duties.

Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon G. Lee explained that a rule of absolute immunity furthers two important policy considerations. First, an absolute privilege ensures that cabinet-level state officials can fulfill their important public duties free from the harassment of lawsuits. Second, an absolute privilege also furthers important free-expression principles, by allowing these state officials to inform the public about the functioning of government and other significant issues. 

The Opinion goes on to say that in a constitutional democracy, the public has a right to receive information and ideas about the government and its public officials. 

The Court noted that Commissioner Little, a member of the governor’s cabinet, was acting within the scope of his duties when he spoke about the content of his letters, which were public records, to members of the media. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Claims Commission and returned the case to them for further proceedings. 

To read the Opinion in Zoyle Jones v. State of Tennessee, authored by Justice Lee, visit the Opinions section of

HTS International To Locate Global Headquarters, Manufacturing In Knox County

HTS International Corporation officials on Thursday announced the advanced manufacturer will invest $21.4 million to establish its global headquarters and new U.S. manufacturing facility in Knox County. HTS International plans to create 200 jobs during the next four years.  “A global company can choose to establish its headquarters anywhere in the world," said Governor Bill ... (click for more)

Influx Of Jobseekers Into Labor Force Pushes Georgia’s Jobless Rate Up In September

The Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) announced today that the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 5.1 percent in September, up two-tenths of a percentage point from 4.9 percent in August. The rate in September 2015 was 5.6 percent. “In September, we had the largest increase in our labor force we’ve seen in nearly a quarter of a century,” said State Labor Commissioner ... (click for more)

Top 12 Most Wanted Fugitive Corey Ripple Apprehended Wednesday Night

Robert Corey Ripple was apprehended on Wednesday evening by Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Deputies and a Deputy U.S. Marshal. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office was advised by the United States Marshall’s Office at approximately 10:30 p.m. Wednesday that Ripple was seen turning in to an address on Dolly Pond Road. The agencies immediately formed an arrest team and went ... (click for more)

Harry Cooper, 54, Is Bicyclist Hit By Dalton Police Officer Thursday Morning

Dalton Police officer Allexis Rittenhouse  hit  Earnest Harry Cooper, 54, of 216 North Easterling Street in Dalton, who was riding a bicycle in the intersection of Thornton Avenue and Cuyler Street early Thursday morning. The Georgia State Patrol is investigating the crash. The incident happened at 12:47 a.m . Officer Rittenhouse was traveling northbound ... (click for more)

Four Reforms For The Superintendent Selection Process

Hamilton County’s school district is suffering from a leadership crisis. Over the last decade, HCDE has had four superintendents, three being unable to even fulfill their contracts. This excessively high turnover rate has impeded endeavors to improve student achievement. Without stable and quality leadership, our students are robbed of the superior instruction they ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: A Little History Lesson

We are told that, as of today, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick holds the dual distinction of being “the most hated man in the NFL” and the wearer of “this year’s No. 1 Most-Purchased NFL jersey.” We also know that early voting just opened in “The Election of the Lesser of Two Evils” and, in Nashville, our educators are struggling with what parts of actual history should ... (click for more)