• 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 Florida court ruled that a pastor could sue two members of his church for defamation as a result of statements they made during a church business meeting falsely accusing him of purchasing a new Mercedes automobile with cash he had stolen from the church. A pastor (Pastor Dennis) sued two church members for defamation as a result of statements the members made during a church business meeting. Pastor Dennis claimed that the members falsely stated that he had purchased a Mercedes automobile with cash, using money he stole from the church. Moreover, the two members publicly referred to him as “Satan.” At the time of the business meeting, Pastor Dennis had served as pastor of the church for 45 years, and had an excellent reputation. But, as a result of the members’ public statements the church lost 60% of its members, the pastor’s reputation was irreparably damaged, and he suffered severe emotional distress. The pastor’s lawsuit alleged that the two members had defamed him and caused him emotional distress. The two members asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that it was barred by the First Amendment. The trial court dismissed the case, and the pastor appealed.
A state appeals court ruled that the pastor’s defamation claim should not have been dismissed since “the allegation that the members told third parties that the pastor purchased a Mercedes with cash stolen from the church is legally sufficient to state a cause of action for defamation.” It referred to other Florida cases holding that statements falsely accusing another of a crime were “actionable per se” (meaning that they automatically constitute defamation).
The court rejected the members’ claim that the First Amendment barred this litigation. It noted that the allegations of the lawsuit “reveal that this suit involves a neutral principle of tort law that does not involve excessive” entanglement in internal church matters or in the interpretation of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical law.”
The court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of the emotional distress claim because “we do not believe that the conduct complained of, taken as true, rises to the level of extreme conduct necessary to support a claim for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Emotional distress requires proof of “conduct so outrageous as to go beyond all bounds of decency, and to be regarded as odious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community …. Generally, the case is one in which the recitation of the facts to an average member of the community would arouse his resentment against the actor, and lead him to exclaim, ‘Outrageous!'” The court concluded, “Although we recognize that being branded a thief in front of one’s parishioners might certainly be unsettling, embarrassing, or humiliating for a member of the clergy, we do not believe that this alleged conduct is the type of extreme and outrageous conduct needed to support a claim for the intentional infliction of emotional distress as a matter of law.” LeGrande v. Emmanuel, 889 So.2d 991 (Fla. App. 2004).
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