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 New York court ruled that a church did not defame a former music director by informing the staff and congregation that he had been dismissed as a result of a false statement in his resume that he had an earned doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. In 2006, a church began a search for an Interim Director of Music. A man (the “plaintiff”) applied for the open position, indicating to the church in both a cover letter and resume that he had earned a doctorate degree from the Eastman School of Music and had completed “post-doctoral” studies at several prestigious institutions. After multiple communications with church leaders, the plaintiff was hired as the church’s Interim Director of Music and church organist.
Three months later, the church began inquiry into plaintiff’s academic credentials after church leaders became aware that plaintiff had not been awarded a doctorate degree and was using the title of “Doctor” inappropriately. Further investigation, culminating with verification from the Eastman School of Music, confirmed that plaintiff, who had satisfied many of the performance requirements leading to the doctorate degree, was never actually awarded the degree because he had not yet passed the oral portion of his doctoral qualifying examinations. Church leaders also learned that plaintiff had been previously cautioned by the Eastman School against using the title “Doctor” prior to conferral of the actual degree.
After affording plaintiff an opportunity to explain the apparent academic misrepresentation, a decision was made to terminate his employment. Shortly thereafter, the church’s senior pastor generated two emails about the change in staff which he sent to the church staff and members of the church choir. The email contained the following statements:
Following our second service of worship yesterday, it became my responsibility to dismiss [the plaintiff] as Interim Choir Director and organist. The action was the result of a failure to reach satisfaction between the Personnel Committee and [the plaintiff] with regard to his academic qualifications and the apparent accuracy of the degree listed in his resume …. The resulting lack of credibility and trust toward [the plaintiff] caused by this matter has rippled through the staff, the sanctuary choir and beyond. I trust you will hold the music ministry of [the church] and all of us, in your thoughts and prayers.
The following week, the church issued the following statement about plaintiff to the entire church congregation in its weekly newsletter:
This past Sunday [the plaintiff] was dismissed as Interim Choir Director and organist. This action was taken with the concurrence of the personnel committee after it learned that the representation on his resume that [the plaintiff] had completed his [doctoral degree] was inaccurate. We appreciate [the plaintiff’s] energy and contributions to our music ministry since last December. In the coming weeks, guest choir directors and organists will assist our choir in our upcoming services. Your prayers are sincerely requested for our music ministry, choir members, and our church’s staff at this challenging time.
A few months following these communications, the plaintiff sued the church and senior pastor for defamation. The court began its opinion by noting that defamation consists of (1) a false statement about another; (2) that is communicated to others without privilege or authorization; and (3) that causes injury to the other’s reputation. The court noted:
The plaintiff faces several insurmountable obstacles that required a dismissal of his claims. The “largest obstacle by far, is that the statements made by defendants with respect to plaintiff’s apparent misrepresentation of his academic credentials are true …. Plaintiff was never actually awarded a [doctoral degree] by the Eastman School of Music and as such, did not hold that degree when he applied to the church for the position of Interim Director of Music. This simple truth acts as an absolute defense to plaintiff’s claims of defamation with respect to the statements made by defendants about plaintiff’s misrepresented education credentials.
The court also ruled that the statements made by the pastor concerning plaintiff’s academic credentials “are protected by a qualified privilege, which exists because the statement was made to the church staff, the music staff and choir, and the congregation. All of these individuals share a common interest in that they are entitled to know the about the circumstances surrounding plaintiff’s dismissal.” As a result, the statements could not be defamatory without proof that they were made with malice. In this context, malice means that the pastor knew that the statements he made regarding the plaintiff’s academic credentials were false, or he made them with a reckless disregard as to their truthfulness.
Application. This case is instructive for the following reasons:
1. It illustrates the potential for fraud in job applications and resumes. According to some surveys, the most common misrepresentations on job applications and resumes pertain to education (i.e., school attended, degrees earned). Many churches now routinely conduct criminal background checks on new employees, but checking an applicant’s educational background is less common. As this case illustrates, this can result in hiring decisions being made on the basis of incorrect information.
2. It illustrates the cardinal rule that truth is an absolute defense to defamation.
3. It illustrates the concept of qualified privilege. According to this widely-recognized legal principle, statements made by church leaders to members regarding matters of common interest generally cannot be defamatory unless made with “malice.” Malice in this context means that the person making the statements knew they were false, or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truthfulness. Malice is very difficult to prove, and this means that churches have significant protection when communicating with members regarding matters of common interest.
Many courts, however, have explicitly limited this privilege to communications that are made to church members. The court in this case applied the qualified privilege to statements made to the staff, choir, and “congregation,” with no indication of whether church membership was required.
Church leaders wanting to preserve the qualified privilege defense when communicating matters of common interest to the congregation should take steps to ensure that their statements are directed exclusively to members. Be sure to consult with legal counsel before making any communication that is potentially damaging to any one or more persons. 2008 WL 5781051 (N.Y. App. 2008).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, September/October 2009.