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Defamation and Church Newsletters
Can a church be sued for publishing derogatory statements in its newsletter?

Can a church be guilty of defamation if it publishes derogatory statements in a church newsletter? No, concluded a Louisiana appeals court. A Catholic priest became upset when he suspected that a monument company that did work at a church cemetery was guilty of using church utilities without paying for them. He wrote a letter to the owner of the monument company which stated, in part: "Stated simply, your workers entered our property, and used [church] utilities without permission, and that is theft. I could have them arrested for and charged, for your information." A copy of the letter was sent to the diocese. A week later, the priest published the following statement in a church newsletter (that was mailed to 362 families): "For your information, I have been obliged [to inform the monument company] that it is forbidden … to perform work of any kind in [the cemetery]. The company has persisted in ignoring my cemetery policies, and has a 'come as you please, go as you please' attitude and uses our electrical utilities without permission. The utilities come out of cemetery funds (e.g., your pocket)." The monument company sued the priest, the local church, and the diocese, when it learned of the statement in the newsletter. A trial court ruled in favor of the defendants, and the company appealed. A state appeals court also rejected the claim of defamation. The court observed: "The elements of a defamation action are: (1) a defamatory statement, (2) publication, (3) falsity, (4) actual or implied malice, and (5) resulting injury. A statement which imputes the commission of a crime to another is defamatory per se and as a result, falsity and malice are presumed, but not eliminated as requirements." The court concluded that the statements by the priest in the letter and church newsletter were false, but that they were not defamatory since the priest made them with a reasonable belief that they were true and accordingly they were not made with "malice." Redmond v. McCool, 582 So.2d 262 (La. App. 1991).

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Posted: May 1, 1992
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