Many churches have their own website on the internet, and for good reason. A website is a great tool for promoting the mission and ministries of a church, and for sharing information with members. But few church leaders are aware that there are several legal and tax issues associated with the use of church websites, and unfamiliarity with these issues can result in unexpected liabilities. An article in last month's Church Finance Today addressed five issues associated with church websites:
- Issue #1: copyright infringement
- Issue #2: trademark infringement
- Issue #3: the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
- Issue #4: invasion of privacy
- Issue #5: pedophiles
This month we will address five more:
- Issue #6: defamation
- Issue #7: political campaign activities
- Issue #8: charitable contributions
- Issue #9: engaging in "commerce"
- Issue #10: sales taxes
Issue #6: Defamation
Any statements on a church website that are false, and that injure the reputation of another person, are potentially defamatory. Such statements may be made by persons speaking on behalf of the church, such as an editorial by a pastor. But, they also may include statements made by persons having no association with the church that are simply repeated on the church website. For example, a church website posts an article containing defamatory statements, or contains a "discussion board" on which someone posts defamatory statements. Some courts have ruled that merely hosting a discussion board on a website can result in liability for defamatory statements posted by third parties, especially if the host had reason to know of the defamatory statements and did nothing to remove or block them.