Defamation: Statements of Opinion

Statements of opinion are generally not considered defamatory.

Church Law & Tax Report

Defamation: Statements of Opinion

Statements of opinion are generally not considered defamatory.

Key Point 4-02. Defamation consists of (1) oral or written statements about another person; (2) that are false; (3) that are “published” (that is, communicated to other persons); and (4) that injure the other person’s reputation.

Key Point 7-17. Churches do not have to tolerate persons who disrupt religious services. Church leaders can ask a court to issue an order barring the disruptive person from the church’s premises. If the person violates the order, he or she may be removed from church premises by the police, and may be found to be in contempt of court.

A Tennessee court ruled that a statement made by a church member to police officers to the effect that another church member intended to kill someone was not defamatory since it was a statement of opinion rather than fact. A male church member (the “plaintiff”) claimed that a female pastor at his church made unfounded accusations of sexual harassment against him. The plaintiff filed a complaint with the church’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee against the pastor. He also wrote a poem, entitled “Assumptions,” which he sent via e-mail to the pastor. The poem tells a story in sixteen rhymed couplets of the arrival of “an attractive young lady” at the heavenly gates. She asks St. Peter if she can enter, and he offers her a hug “with arms opened wide.” She rejects the hug, and St. Peter rebukes her for her distrust and prejudice. He then pulls a chain, opening a door beneath the woman’s feet, with the result that “the devil embraced this woman on the other side.”

Shortly after composing this poem, the plaintiff arrived at church an hour before a scheduled worship service, and attached a copy of his poem to a bulletin board. A prefatory note attached to the poem stated that it was “One Christian’s Response to Allegations of Sexual Harassment.” A member of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (Susan) was nearby, and as soon as the plaintiff left the hallway where the bulletin board was located, she removed the poem.

When the plaintiff returned to the hallway, an argument broke out between him and two other church members. Susan overheard the confrontation, and called the police. A police officer arrived promptly, and Susan allegedly blurted out, in the presence of her husband and the two other church members, that “he wrote a poem that threatened the life of one of our members.” The police officer escorted the plaintiff from the church premises, and the church trustees later told him not to return.

The plaintiff sued Susan for defamation, claiming that her statement spread through the congregation “like a wildfire,” that it caused him great mental anguish and emotional suffering, and that it was defamatory. He asked the court to award him $100,000 in compensatory damages, $50,000 for emotional pain and suffering, and $150,000 in punitive damages. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit and issued an injunction barring the plaintiff from entering church property or having contact with any church member. The plaintiff appealed.

A state appeals court noted that defamation consists of a false statement about another person that is publicized and injures the victim’s reputation. The court concluded that Susan’s statement to the police officer was not defamatory since it was a statement of opinion:

We consider [Susan’s] statement that [the plaintiff’s] poem amounts to a threat on someone’s life to be a matter of opinion, which should not be confused with a statement of fact. This distinction is important because a statement of opinion does not usually constitute actionable defamation, while a false statement of fact may do so …. It appears to us that she was not accusing [him] of committing a crime, but was merely giving excited expression to her opinion of the underlying meaning of his poem.

The court stressed that there was no “wholesale defamation exemption” for all statements of opinion, and that a statement of opinion can be defamatory if it “implies the allegation of undisclosed defamatory facts as the basis for the opinion.” But, “where there is no false representation of fact, one may not recover in actions for defamation merely upon the expression of an opinion which is based upon disclosed, non-defamatory facts, no matter how derogatory it may be.”

The court concluded: “[Susan] has been accused of saying that the plaintiff ‘wrote a poem that threatened the life of one of our members.’ We do not believe that such a statement is equivalent to saying that he threatened someone’s life, which under the circumstances might have amounted to an allegation of fact. Nor does it carry an implication that he threatened anyone at any other time or in any other manner than by writing a poem. The alleged statement is clearly opinion only, and we therefore agree with the trial court that it is not defamatory.”

The court agreed with the plaintiff, however, that the trial court’s injunction was too broad: “If strictly followed it would prevent him from associating with any church members for any purpose whatsoever, even if the other person agreed to or welcomed that contact.” The court limited the injunction to a ban on the plaintiff’s presence on church property. Kersey v. Wilson, 2006 WL 3952899 (Tenn. App. 2007).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, July/August 2008.

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