California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, shown in 2011, argued in a dissent that California officials’ public votes are not protected under state and federal free speech laws. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)
August 8, 2016
The California Supreme Court decided Monday that the votes of elected officials are protected free speech.
The state high court ruled in a lawsuit brought by the city of Montebello against three former council members and a city administrator. Montebello contended the officials had violated a conflict of interest law in supporting a garbage hauling contract in exchange for campaign contributions.
In a 5-2 decision, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote that voting by an elected official was protected by a state law designed to combat lawsuits that chill free speech. The law allows defendants to bring a special motion to throw out such a lawsuit at an early stage.
Monday’s ruling shifts the legal burden from the former city officials to Montebello. The city will now have to show that it is probable the officials violated state law when they handled the garbage contract, which has since been rescinded.
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“It is not necessary to sue government officers in their personal capacities to challenge the propriety of a government action,” Corrigan wrote.
She said elected officials also may invoke the protection of free speech when sued over a vote “without chilling citizens’ exercise of their right to challenge government by suing the public entity itself.”
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