Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Defamation Via Email
Think before you "send."

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.

Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.

An Indiana court ruled that a church member could be sued for defamation as a result of an email she sent to several other church members that was highly critical of another member. A church member ("Jane") was chairman of the church's Christian education committee and a member of the church's pastoral search committee. Another church member ("Nancy") sent an email to two church officials which contained several disparaging statements about Jane, including the following: (1) she "attacked" the former pastor's family. (2) she was "a one-woman wrecking crew"; (3) she behaved in a disrespectful manner and screamed at an elderly member of the church; (4) she had an "evil spirit"; and (5) she was "anything but Christ-like" and was "controlled by a spirit that is anything but of God." One of the email recipients, who was an employee of the local police department, received the email at her work email address, and forwarded it to 89 other email addresses, all of whom were members of the church or "associated" with it.

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Posted: March 1, 2010
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