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 Colorado federal court dismissed a pastor’s claim that she had been defamed by a church member who made numerous false and derogatory statements about her on social media.
A woman (the “pastor”) has been the pastor of a church since its founding in 1982. In recent years, a church member (the “defendant”) became disenchanted with the pastor’s leadership and doctrinal teachings.
In 2017, the defendant left the church and, soon after, allegedly started posting “defamatory, false, and slanderous statements” about the pastor on various social media accounts. Posts included the following accusations:
- The pastor knew that her two sons were guilty of immoral contact, including sexual abuse, but refused to act and “covered it up.”
- The pastor “is the ringleader herself, the wicked witch of the West.”
- The defendant referred to the church’s parishioners as a “crazy bunch of people” who were “brainwashed.”
- The defendant posted a two-hour video on Facebook, using his personal Facebook account, where he made various statements about the pastor, including accusations that she required parishioners to obtain her “permission” before making purchases; that she was “spreading lies;” that she told the defendant’s parents to “put him out” on the street at age sixteen; and that she threatened to remove parishioners who did not “pledge” money to the church. He also referred to the church as a “cult,” and characterized its members as “being under bondage.” The defendant later posted this “same exact” video to YouTube.
- The defendant made social media “postings” about alleged “abuse” within the church.
- The defendant posted an image on Facebook depicting a photograph of the pastor next to a photograph of “the notorious Jim Jones,” a man reportedly “responsible for the murder/suicide of 918 individuals including 304 children.” The pastor claimed that the defendant posted the image “with malice,” in an attempt “to draw a clear analogy between the two individuals depicted.”
- On a different occasion, the defendant posted an “email” in which he stated that the pastor engaged in “fraud,” and “received funds” totaling “5 million dollars.”
The pastor later sued the defendant in a federal district court in Colorado. The pastor claimed that the defendant was liable on the following grounds: defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
As to her first claim, the pastor alleged that the defendant published numerous “false” and “defamatory” statements about her on the internet, including: (1) that the church is a “cult;” (2) that there was “abuse” within the church; (3) that the pastor engaged in “fraud,” received funds totaling $5 million, and allowed her “corrupt” sons to participate in the church; and (4) that the pastor is a “witch;” and that one of her sons is “almost a sex offender.” In addition, the pastor alleged that the defendant further defamed her when he published a photograph of her next to a photograph of Jim Jones.
The court noted that defamation is “a communication that holds an individual up to contempt or ridicule thereby causing him to incur injury or damage.”
The required elements of a defamation claim are: (1) a defamatory statement concerning another; (2) that is false; (3) communicated to a third party; (4) causes injury to reputation; and, if the victim is a “public figure,” clear and convincing evidence of malice.
In this context, malice means statements were “uttered with knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of their truth.” Malice can be shown if the defendant “entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statement or acted with a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity.” Further, “a defendant who willfully chooses not to learn the truth prior to publishing an allegedly false statement can be found to have acted with malice.”
The pastor claimed that the defendant’s malice could be inferred from the fact that the statements he made about the pastor were all “demonstrably false.”
The court disagreed, noting that the pastor “did not direct the court to sufficient evidence that defendant knew, or strongly suspected, that his statements concerning [the pastor] were false.” The court also noted that, were the pastor treated as a private figure for purposes of the lawsuit, the pastor still failed to show evidence that the defendant “negligently failed to ascertain the truth of his statements before publishing them.”
Intentional infliction of emotional distress
The pastor’s second claim was for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court noted that to prevail on this claim the pastor needed to demonstrate: (1) the defendant engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct; (2) the defendant engaged in such conduct recklessly or with the intent of causing the pastor severe emotional distress; and (3) the defendant’s conduct caused the pastor to suffer severe emotional distress. The pastor claimed that she had “suffered emotional distress and trauma” due to the defendant’s publication of the many bitter and abusive statements concerning her and her family.
But the court dismissed this claim, noting that the pastor “did not direct the court to sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the defendant acted recklessly, or with the intent to cause emotional distress.”
What this means for pastors and churches
Pastors and other church leaders sometimes experience the wrath of a disgruntled member who uses social media to communicate false and derogatory information to the public. Such events can be extremely painful, causing victims to ask what can be done.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Defamation is an injury to reputation.
To establish a claim for defamation, a victim must prove the following four elements: (1) a statement (whether verbal (slander) or in writing (libel)), (2) concerning another, (3) that is false, and that (4) injures reputation.
Since a landmark US Supreme Court ruling in 1964 (New York Times v. Sullivan), it has become much more difficult for “public figures” to prove defamation. The Court’s reason: when people voluntarily thrust themselves into the public eye, they must expect to be the target of criticism.
Thus, in addition to the other four elements of defamation summarized above, public figures must prove that defamatory statements were made with malice. Malice must be shown by demonstrating statements were made with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. Malice is difficult to establish, meaning that the success rate of defamation claims involving public figures is low.
Although few courts have addressed the question, it is likely courts will deem ministers to be public figures. As a result, ministers will be required to show more than damage to their reputations to establish defamation. They also must demonstrate that the allegedly defamatory remark was made with malice. That is a much harder path for prevailing in a civil lawsuit they file against persons who defame them.
Of note, this specific case shows the difficulty with proving malice when a pastor is considered a public figure. It also shows a burden of proof still must be met, even if a pastor is considered a private figure (although it is more likely a pastor will be considered a public figure).
- At least two justices of the United States Supreme Court (Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Neil Gorsuch) have called for a re-examination—and possible reversal of—New York Times v. Sullivan. Such a development would make it much easier for ministers, and other public figures, to maintain defamation lawsuits despite their statuses as public figures.
- Even if a defamation claim is not an option, there are other grounds ministers can pursue against persons making unfounded and derogatory comments about them on social media. These include intentional infliction of emotional distress (as this case illustrates, also difficult to prove), and a variant of “invasion of privacy” consisting of public disclosure of private fact.
- Many courts have ruled that the “ministerial exception”—which generally prohibits the civil courts from resolving internal employment disputes between churches and clergy—applies to defamation claims brought by ministers against their current or former churches. But other courts have reached the opposite conclusion and have said that such claims can be resolved so long as this can be done without inquiries into church doctrine and polity.
Banks v. Jackson, 2022 WL 1451904. (Colo. 2022).