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Can Opinions Be Defamatory?

Former music director sues church for defamation after his dismissal.

New York

Key point. Defamation consists of (1) oral or written statements about another person; (2) that are false; (3) that are "published" (that is, communicated to other persons); and (4) that injure the other person's reputation.

A New York court ruled that a pastor did not defame his church's music director by stating that he had been dismissed due to a "lack of credibility." Church leaders dismissed the church's music director after discovering that he had misrepresented his academic credentials at the time of his employment. The senior pastor of the church informed church staff and choir members that the "resulting lack of credibility and trust toward [the music director] caused by this matter has rippled through [the church and choir]." The dismissed music director sued the pastor and church for defamation. The court dismissed the lawsuit, noting that the pastor's comments were "an expression of opinion" and therefore could not be defamatory.

Application. Defamation consists of a false statement about another that is publicized and injures the victim's reputation. Since opinions cannot be "false," they generally cannot be defamatory. Hamrick v. Perdue, 2008 WL 5214647 (N.Y.A.D. 2008).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2009.

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  • March 1, 2009