Defamatory Statements

Expressions of opinion cannot be considered defamation.

Church Law and Tax 1997-09-01

Libel and Slander

Key point. To be defamatory, an utterance must contain a false statement of fact rather than an expression of an opinion.

A Massachusetts court ruled that statements made by a pastor about a member of a church committee could not be defamatory since they were mere expressions of opinion. A member of a church was elected to the Christian Education Committee of the church for three consecutive three—year terms. During the course of her service on the committee, the member and the church’s pastor developed a personality conflict and clashed on several occasions on a variety of church—related issues. The pastor communicated her opinion on the member’s job performance to the church congregation, and distributed a book entitled “Antagonists of the Church” to members of the church’s nominating committee for their consideration in evaluating the member’s suitability for renomination at the end of her current term on the committee. The church’s nominating council did not renominate the member for another term on the Christian Education Committee and, as a result, she filed a lawsuit against her pastor alleging defamation. She claimed that the pastor had defamed her by giving a copy of the book “Antagonists in the Church” to the nominating committee and by telling them that the book “might be helpful … in their decision making” regarding her reappointment to the education committee. A trial court dismissed the case, and the member appealed. A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The court noted that “to recover for defamation the plaintiff must establish (a) a false and defamatory statement of fact concerning another; (b) an unprivileged publication to a third party; (c) fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher; and (d) … harm caused by the publication.” The court concluded that the pastor’s communications were not defamatory since they were mere expressions of opinion rather than statements of fact as required to support a defamation claim.

Application. This case illustrates an important point-most courts have limited defamation to false statements of fact as opposed to expressions of opinion. Therefore, in deciding whether or not communications made by church leaders to members of the congregation are defamatory, most courts will first determine if the communications contained statements of fact as opposed to expressions of opinion. Of course, even if the communications contained statements of fact, they cannot be defamatory unless they were “published” or communicated publicly, they were false, and they injured someone’s reputation. DeLong v. Giles, 1996 WL 224477 (Mass. App. 1996). [Officer of the Church Corporation]

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