Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Avoiding Defamation Lawsuits
In some cases, even a true statement may be considered defamatory.

Key point 4-02. 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.

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 4-04. Many states recognize "invasion of privacy" as a basis for liability. Invasion of privacy may consist of any one or more of the following: (1) public disclosure of private facts; (2) use of another person's name or likeness; (3) placing someone in a "false light" in the public eye; or (4) intruding upon another's seclusion.

A federal court in the District of Columbia ruled that a former church employee could sue the church for defamation and invasion of privacy as a result of the church's disclosure to its members that the employee had married a registered sex offender. The facts of the case, as alleged by the employee in her lawsuit, are as follows. A woman was employed as a teacher at a church preschool for seven years. During her employment her fiancé was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, indecently exposing himself to a minor. The teacher informed the preschool director of her fiancé's conviction, and the director informed the church board. The church took no action at that time, and the teacher continued her employment without any further discussion of the matter. In time, the teacher and her fiancé were married. At no time did anyone associated with the church or preschool indicate that the teacher's marriage would be cause for concern or place her job in jeopardy.

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