Defamation Lawsuit Explores The Idea of Public Hearing ‘Immunity’
Connecticut courts have never had to decide whether a member of the public, who is testifying at a legislative hearing, can defame another person without consequences. But a judge may soon get a chance to clarify the issue.
Last month a Hartford Superior Court judge refused to throw out a defamation lawsuit filed by a South Windsor company against the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and its president, David Fay, for statements Fay made during a 2011 public hearing.
Judge Trial Referee Jerry Wagner said in a March 12 decision that he couldn’t decide the case because there was an issue as to when Fay had made defamatory statements against TicketNetwork. Was it during the General Law Committee’s public hearing or on the phone with a Journal Inquirer reporter?
Wagner’s decision to allow the case to move forward to trial boiled down to whether Fay’s statements to the Journal Inquirer — which published articles on the legislation and the public hearing — were from an interview with a reporter, or paraphrased from the transcript of the public hearing available on the legislature’s website.
“Addressing whether a privilege would protect statements made to a legislative body, the appellate courts of this state have stated that an absolute privilege protects statements made in legislative proceedings; but have never fully addressed whether or under what conditions that privilege attaches to the statements made by witnesses before legislative bodies,” Wagner wrote in his March 12 decision.
“In the only Connecticut case where the issue was before the court, the Appellate Court noted that the privilege protected state and federal legislators but did not address whether the privilege extended beyond these categories,” Wagner wrote.
Fay and the Bushnell made a motion for summary judgment in August, arguing that he had “absolute immunity for the statements made during the legislative proceedings before the committee.”
TicketNetwork alleged that Fay made comments that were not true in opposing 2011 legislation regarding the fair sale of tickets to entertainment events. TicketNetwork is seeking to hold Fay liable for those statements. Fay testified that TicketNetwork used software to buy tickets and put a “hold” on them to sell them at a profit. TicketNetwork is a ticket exchange and provides an online marketplace for ticket brokers and secondary sellers, but doesn’t actually handle tickets, according to court documents.
In testimony before the General Law Committee back in 2011, “Mr. Fay stated that TicketNetwork used computer systems with ‘thousands of virtual buyers’ to place tickets on ‘hold’ temporarily unavailable for purchase by the public, while deciding what tickets to purchase,” according to court documents. “However, when asked at his deposition whether he knew if TicketNetwork bought tickets or used computer systems to place tickets on hold, Mr. Fay testified that he lacked sufficient information to know if those statements were true or false.”
Fay did not respond to repeated phone calls for comment over the past week.
Despite the details in the underlying complaint, TicketNetwork CEO Don Vaccaro said “this has become a mission to make sure folks will tell the truth at public hearings.”
But Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, isn’t sure that such a standard is good idea. Without commenting on the case at all, Doyle said there shouldn’t be any barriers for the public to come testify at public hearings.
“We don’t want to censor what people are saying,” Doyle said. “We want to hear all opinions.”
But Vaccaro said he thinks it would be better for democracy to guarantee that the public is telling the truth.
“I think in the long run the state will be better off if folks at public hearings have to tell the truth,” Vaccaro said. “Public hearings are not the same as years ago. Everything is instant and online. You can’t defend someone or a company without it going viral or harming their reputation.”
A trial is on track to begin sometime this summer. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for today.
The 2011 bill which would change how ticket companies operate was abandoned by the legislature’s General Law Committee after the lawsuit was filed.