Key Point 4-02.03. A number of defenses are available to one accused of defamation. These include truth, statements made in the course of judicial proceedings, consent, and self-defense. In addition, statements made to church members about a matter of common interest to members are protected by a "qualified privilege," meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless they are made with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the statements knew that they were false or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. This privilege will not apply if the statements are made to nonmembers.
A Louisiana court ruled that a minister did not defame a church member in an article he wrote for the church bulletin since the article did not contain a false statement concerning the member. A church member (the "plaintiff"), who had previously served as the church's bookkeeper, had several differences of opinion with the church's minister over issues of administration. The conflict intensified to the point that the plaintiff submitted a letter to the minister in which she resigned from all of her volunteer ministries in the church. Despite her letter, the plaintiff continued to participate in various church ministries. This prompted the minister to send her a letter informing her that her activities were in "direct violation of [her] own self-applied resignation" from the church ministries, and reminded her that her "membership, active participation and contributions in these ministries are no longer allowed." He directed her to "desist from such roles" and to "stop disturbing the peace" of the church. The minister also wrote a short article in the church bulletin that stated, in part:
No member or group of members of this parish has the right to intimidate, or to try to intimidate, other members from the legitimate use of any facility or property that belongs to this parish. Any such report will be treated very seriously.
On the other hand, any parishioner that allows himself/herself to be intimidated from using any of these facilities, legitimately of course, is simply depriving himself/herself [of] his/her natural right and [has] only himself/herself to blame for it.
The plaintiff sued the church, claiming that these statements in the church bulletin had defamed her. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the plaintiff appealed.
A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that defamation involves a false statement about another, that is communicated to others, and that injures the other's reputation. The court concluded that the bulletin did not defame the plaintiff since it did not contain any false statements concerning her: "Notably, the alleged defamatory bulletin does not mention [the plaintiff] by name or otherwise. Moreover, nothing in the bulletin is alleged to be a false statement; thus, it is of no moment that [the plaintiff] felt that the message was directed at her, or that other church members may have taken it to be directed at her. Indeed, the testimony of other church members revealed there were persons other than [the plaintiff] they thought the minister may have been referring to in the bulletin message. Likewise, just because the letters and even the bulletin may have embarrassed [the plaintiff], as a matter of law, without a false statement, she cannot prove defamation." 2008 WL 2065938 (La. App. 2008).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, September/October 2009.