When he called for restraining defamatory, irrelevant and erroneous speech uttered on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, Speaker of the House McKeeva Bush was 100 percent correct – in half of what he said.
It is true that parliamentary privilege endows LA members with “absolute free speech” during proceedings, giving them immunity from defamation claims, even if they utter false or misleading statements. Because the privilege is so broad, it is imperative that it must not be abused.
Too often and for too long, our elected officials have hidden behind the cloak of privilege to attack and besmirch the reputations of fellow lawmakers or even private individuals (as this newspaper well knows) who have no recourse to a similarly impenetrable “shield.”
As Speaker Bush said Wednesday, “Members should be aware of the protection they have when speaking because there is parliamentary privilege.
“But it is exactly that protection that dictates decency and truth, not speculation or hearsay.”
There is, after all, a difference between free speech and speech free of consequences. Even though Cayman’s MLAs can say anything they please on the House floor, using their position of authority to make verbal attacks based on petty grievances, personal self-interest, or simple lack of willingness to “do their homework” constitutes a gross abuse of power.
Irresponsible speech from our elected leaders introduces negativity and incivility into our country’s political discourse. It sets a bad example for the broader society (including the youth) and runs counter to the seemingly endless series of taxpayer-funded “anti-bullying” lectures and campaigns designed to inspire courageous conduct and decent behavior.
Despite their legal right to speak however they wish – in fact, because of this right – lawmakers should approach the House floor with the same gravitas, respect and, yes, even reverence as they would a courtroom or church. At the very least, anything they dare to say in the House, they should be willing to repeat outside on the steps of the Assembly, and beyond the mantle of parliamentary privilege.
Speaker Bush erred, however, when he attempted to conflate the issue of members’ abuse of parliamentary privilege with the media’s duty to report parliamentary proceedings.
Inside the Legislative Assembly, the House Speaker rules floor debate as both judge and jury. That power – like parliamentary privilege – extends only to the threshold of the Assembly.
We applaud Speaker Bush for his commitment to monitor closely debates to ensure that lawmakers focus on issues and refrain from scurrilous remarks. However, his contention that journalists “should not add to the wrong” by accurately reporting parliamentary debate if an MLA goes off the rails is unmanageable – and, prima facie, wrong.
To illustrate our point, we would ask our readers to tune their TVs to the government’s CIG-TV, or their radios to the government’s Radio Cayman sister station Breeze FM. Both broadcast the proceedings of the Assembly “live.”
If an elected member happens to deliver inflammatory, defamatory or deleterious remarks while on live television or radio, does Mr. Bush plan to sue or sanction government’s own media? If not, certainly he could not sustain an argument that the private media, including this newspaper, should be held to a more restrictive standard. If Mr. Bush is merely suggesting that the media exercise prudent and responsible judgment as to what we choose to print or broadcast, then we have no issue whatsoever with his position.
To conclude, we will quote from a relevant passage from Erskine May, the authoritative tome on parliamentary practice which Mr. Bush, formerly as a legislator and now as Speaker of the House, frequently cites:
“But the publication, whether by the order of the House or not, of a fair and accurate account of a debate in either House is protected by the same principle as that which protects fair reports of proceedings in courts of justice, that the advantage of publicity to the community at large outweighs any private injury resulting from the publication, unless malice is proved. This is a matter of common law, rather than of parliamentary privilege.”