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 federal court in New Hampshire ruled that a camp director’s false statement that the state had filed a complaint of child abuse against a camp worker was not defamatory. A young man (“Ken”) was hired by a summer camp to be its archery teacher. Ken worked for the camp for two summers, and received room and board, uniforms, reimbursement of expenses, but no salary. After his second year at the camp, Ken received a letter from the camp director informing him that he was not being invited back for the next summer. No reason was given. The director later told Ken that he was not being rehired because of complaints against him for inappropriate contact with minor campers. The director stated that two of these complaints were from parents of campers, while the third had come through the state. Ken later sued the director for defamation. He acknowledged that two parents had made complaints about inappropriate contacts with their children, but he insisted that the state had never alleged that Ken had engaged in inappropriate contacts with campers. Ken also alleged that the director defamed him by stating that the existence of three actual allegations against Ken implied the existence of numerous other unreported incidents.
The court ruled that Ken had not been defamed for the following reasons:
(1) Defamation consists of false statements about another person that injure his or her reputation or lower his or her esteem. The camp director’s statement that the state had filed a complaint against Ken did not injure his reputation or lower his esteem because it was made at the same time that the director disclosed that two parents had made complaints about Ken’s contacts with their children. Taken in context, the statement about the complaint from the state “may not reasonably be read as further lowering the esteem in which Ken would be held by others.”
(2) Defamation requires a false statement. The court concluded that the director’s statement that the state had filed a complaint against Ken was not defamatory “because it is substantially true.” It noted that the director’s statements were “substantially true—in the sense that complaints about inappropriate contact had indeed been made” against Ken.
(3) The second allegedly defamatory statement that "the existence of three known allegations automatically implied the existence of other unreported ones" was not defamatory because it was “not a statement of fact; it is a statement of [the director’s] opinion as to the existence of other incidents. A statement of opinion is not [defamatory] unless it may reasonably be understood to imply the existence of defamatory facts as the basis for the opinion.”
Application. This case demonstrates that statements made about the prior sexual misconduct of youth workers will not necessarily be defamatory if, taking all the facts into consideration, they are either “substantially true” or do not lower the esteem or reputation of the molester. Moss v. Camp Pemigewassett, 2001 WL 1326674 (D.N.H. 2001).
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