• Key point. Statements communicated by church leaders to church members concerning matters of "common interest" are protected by a "qualified privilege". This means that they cannot be defamatory unless they are uttered with "legal malice." Statements are made with legal malice if they are made with a knowledge that they are false, or with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. The qualified privilege does not apply if information is shared with nonmembers.
An Ohio court ruled that a letter addressed by a church official to "members and friends" of the church, in which he explained why the church board dismissed a church secretary, might have been defamatory. A woman was employed as an office secretary for her church for approximately eight years. In May of 1996, she was informed by church officials that her employment was being terminated. The woman claimed that church officials did not express any dissatisfaction with her work performance. She later received a letter confirming the termination of her employment. The letter did not state any reasons for the termination. A church official later circulated a letter in which he stated that the woman had been "fired" as church secretary. The letter was directed to the "Fellow Members and Friends" of the church. In the letter, the official stated that the church board of trustees had cited "insubordination, some incompetency, and inability to maintain confidentiality" as some of the reasons for the termination.
A few months later, the woman sued her church for defamation. A trial court threw out the case, on the basis of a "qualified privilege". It concluded that church members "have an interest in actions taken by the board of trustees with regards to employees of the church" and that "the board of trustees are accountable to the church body." The trial court also found that although the letter was mailed to a large number of church members, such members "are within an acceptable scope for the communication."