Defamation – Part 1

A federal appeals court ruled that a camp director’s false statement that the state had filed a complaint of child abuse against a camp worker was defamatory.

Church Law and Tax2003-11-01

Defamation – Part 1

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 appeals court ruled that a camp director’s false statement that the state had filed a complaint of child abuse against a camp worker was defamatory. A 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 for the decision was given, and Ken had no prior indication of dissatisfaction with his efforts. The director later told Ken that he had received three complaints alleging inappropriate contact with boys at the camp. Two of the complaints were made by parents directly to the camp and a third came “through the state of New Hampshire. The director refused to provide any detail regarding the identity of the complainants and only disclosed some “partial details” of one complaint. The director later told an assistant counselor of the camp of the complaints against Ken, stating that one came “through the state of New Hampshire.” The director also informed the counselor that he was “concerned something like this would happen again and that the existence of three known allegations automatically implied the existence of numerous other unreported ones.” A member of the camp’s board of directors later sent Ken a letter in which he stated that the director’s statement that he had received a complaint about Ken from the state of New Hampshire was false. The director disclosed that the board was aware of no complaints ever having been made to the state concerning Ken’s conduct with minors. Despite the acknowledged falsity of the director’s statement about the state complaint, the board of directors ratified the director’s decision and refused Ken’s request for reinstatement. Ken later sued the camp for defamation as a result of the camp director’s statement to the counselor that he had received a complaint regarding Ken through the state of New Hampshire concerning inappropriate contact with boys at the camp (an admittedly false statement) as well as two complaints from camp parents. A federal district court rejected Ken’s defamation claim, and the case was appealed.

A federal appeals court noted that a statement is defamatory if it “tends to lower the plaintiff in the esteem of any substantial and respectable group of people.” The court concluded that the camp director’s statements to the camp counselor constituted defamation. It noted that the phrase “inappropriate contact with boys at the camp” could be reasonably understood to mean either sexual or physical misconduct. It observed, “Because inappropriate contact is a common euphemism for child abuse, the statement is capable of defamatory meaning. It implies that Ken is accused of criminal conduct involving moral turpitude. Moreover, the statement tends to disparage Ken in a way that is peculiarly harmful to his professional reputation. He alleges that he has worked for thirty years building his reputation as an archery coach and took great pride in treating his pupils professionally. He argues that the stigma of a child molestation accusation would severely impact his ability to work as an archery coach. It is axiomatic that an allegation of child abuse is peculiarly harmful to a professional working with children. Statements that harm one’s professional reputation also constitute slander.

Further, the severity of the director’s statement to the camp counselor “was underlined by the director’s further statement that he was concerned something like this would happen again and that the existence of three known allegations automatically implied the existence of numerous other unreported ones. Accordingly, we think that persons of ordinary intelligence and common understanding could reasonably have understood the words as implying wrongdoing by Ken, and are thus capable of defamatory meaning.”

However, the court agreed with the district court that the director’s statement to the counselor that the existence of three known allegations “implies the existence of other unreported ones” could not be defamatory because it was a statement of opinion. The court concluded, “The director did not express an opinion that implied his knowledge of additional facts but merely offered a general theory that in a case such as this, the number of known allegations automatically implied the existence of some larger number of actual incidents. His statement is merely his own speculation. No person could reasonably understand that statement to imply that he had actual knowledge of additional incidents or complaints.”

Application. This case is significant because it demonstrates that statements made by pastors and lay church workers about the unproven prior sexual misconduct of a particular individual may result in church liability on the basis of defamation. Moss v. Camp Pemigewassett, 2002 WL 31664690 (1st Cir. 2002).

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