Key point 4-02.02. Ministers are considered "public figures" and as a result they cannot be defamed unless the person making an otherwise defamatory remark did so with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the defamatory remark either had actual knowledge that it was false or made it with a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.
A Louisiana court ruled that a church and members of the church board were guilty of defaming a former pastor. A church's treasurer, board chairman, and three church members visited the church's bank to obtain information on the church's finances because the church was planning on building a new sanctuary. They were advised by the bank that the church had a $50,000 certificate of deposit ("CD"). At a meeting of the church board, the church's pastor was unable to identify the source of the CD and was asked to step down as pastor. He repeatedly informed the church board that he did not steal any money from the church and that the CD did not belong to the church.
The pastor sued the church and members of the church board (the "church defendants"). His lawsuit alleged that church board members defamed him by falsely accusing him of having improperly used funds belonging to the church; accused him of embezzlement of church funds by purchasing the CD with church funds for his own use; and called him a thief and a liar before members of the church. A trial court ruled in favor of the pastor, and awarded him $196,228 for back pay, $120,246 for pastoral annual payment loss, $79,795 for fringe benefit loss, plus costs and interest from the date of judicial demand, and general damages of $150,000. The church defendants appealed.
The court noted that three elements are necessary to establish a claim for defamation: (1) a false and defamatory statement concerning another, (2) communicated to a third party ("publication"), and (3) resulting in injury to reputation. The court added that "a statement is defamatory if it tends to harm a person's reputation, lowers the person in the estimation of the community, deters others from associating with the person, or otherwise exposes the person to contempt or ridicule."
Words that accuse another of criminal conduct, or which by their very nature tend to injure one's personal or professional reputation, are deemed "defamation per se," meaning that they are presumptively defamatory. The court concluded that the church defendants' statements were defamatory per se. The church defendants "accused the pastor of embezzlement of church funds," and of being a thief and a liar in front of other members of the church … . These accusations are defamatory per se because they accused the pastor of criminal conduct and because, by their very nature, they tended to injure his professional reputation as a pastor."
Even if statements constitute defamation per se, they still must be communicated ("published") to at least one third person in order for defamation to occur. The reason for this requirement is that defamation constitutes an injury to reputation, and this cannot occur unless the defamatory statement is communicated to others. The court observed, "Publication means the communication of non-privileged defamatory words to even one single person besides the party defamed. A defendant who utters a defamatory statement is responsible for all republication that is the natural and probable consequence of the author's act."
The court next observed that "a plaintiff claiming defamation must present competent evidence of the injuries suffered," and that "the defamatory statements were a substantial factor in causing the harm." There was no question, the court concluded, that the pastor had suffered due to the defamatory statements: "He was unable to pursue his vocation as a pastor of an established church. Further, he lost his health insurance and his pension, which were benefits that the church provided to him … . He was in poor health and unable to find other work."
What This Means For Churches:
This case illustrates three important points:
First, church leaders should understand that making derogatory comments in public regarding current or former staff members may result in liability for defamation, especially when those comments refer to criminal acts, such as embezzlement or theft. If financial improprieties are detected or suspected, church leaders must be cautious in what they communicate with the membership. Any statement should be written, and approved by legal counsel.
Many courts have recognized a "qualified privilege" for statements made to church members on matters of common interest. This means that such statements ordinarily cannot be defamatory unless made with "malice." Malice in this context means that the person making the statements knew they were false, or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truthfulness. Malice is very difficult to prove, and this means that churches have significant protection when communicating with members regarding matters of common interest.
Note that this privilege generally is limited to communications made to church members. Church leaders wanting to preserve the qualified privilege defense when communicating matters of common interest to the congregation should take steps to ensure that their statements are directed exclusively to members.
Second, the court ruled that the "publication" requirement in the definition of defamation can be satisfied if a defamatory statement is shared with only one person: "Publication means the communication of non-privileged defamatory words to even one single person besides the party defamed. A defendant who utters a defamatory statement is responsible for all republication that is the natural and probable consequence of the author's act."
Third, note that some members of the church board were sued as well as the church, and were found personally liable for their actions. Thompson v. Bank One of Louisiana, NA, 134 So.3d 653 (La. App. 2014).