Recent Developments in Ohio Regarding Libel and Slander

An Ohio court ruled that a letter addressed by a church official to “members and friends” of the church, in which he explained why the church board dismissed a church secretary, might have been defamatory.

Church Law and Tax1998-11-01

Libel and slander

Key point. Statements communicated by church leaders to church members concerning matters of “common interest” are protected by a “qualified privilege”. This means that they cannot be defamatory unless they are uttered with “legal malice.” Statements are made with legal malice if they are made with a knowledge that they are false, or with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. The qualified privilege does not apply if information is shared with nonmembers.

An Ohio court ruled that a letter addressed by a church official to “members and friends” of the church, in which he explained why the church board dismissed a church secretary, might have been defamatory. A woman was employed as an office secretary for her church for approximately eight years. In May of 1996, she was informed by church officials that her employment was being terminated. The woman claimed that church officials did not express any dissatisfaction with her work performance. She later received a letter confirming the termination of her employment. The letter did not state any reasons for the termination. A church official later circulated a letter in which he stated that the woman had been “fired” as church secretary. The letter was directed to the “Fellow Members and Friends” of the church. In the letter, the official stated that the church board of trustees had cited “insubordination, some incompetency, and inability to maintain confidentiality” as some of the reasons for the termination.

A few months later, the woman sued her church for defamation. A trial court threw out the case, on the basis of a “qualified privilege”. It concluded that church members “have an interest in actions taken by the board of trustees with regards to employees of the church” and that “the board of trustees are accountable to the church body.” The trial court also found that although the letter was mailed to a large number of church members, such members “are within an acceptable scope for the communication.”

A state appeals court defined the concept of qualified privilege as follows:

In order to qualify for this privilege, a defendant must establish that (1) he acted in good faith; (2) there was an interest to be upheld; (3) the statement was limited in its scope to the purpose of upholding that interest; (4) the occasion was proper; and (5) the publication was made in a proper manner and only to the proper parties. Once the defendant establishes the defense of qualified privilege, the plaintiff may not recover for defamation unless he can present clear and convincing evidence that the defamatory statement was made with actual malice.

Was the letter sent by the church official to “members and friends” of the church protected against defamation by this qualified privilege? The court began its opinion by observing that members of the church would “logically be interested in, and proper parties to, the subject letter. Obviously, the letter concerned a church interest; i.e., [the woman’s] ability to perform her duties as secretary for the church. It was written by a church [official], and was limited in scope to informing the members of the reasons for [the woman’s] termination.”

However, the court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the case, and ordered it to proceed to trial, because it was not convinced that the letter had been distributed “only to the proper parties, i.e., the church membership.” While the church official insisted that the letter had been sent only to members of the church, the woman claimed that “of the approximately 150 persons or households to whom the letter was mailed, seventeen were not members of the church,” and that one of the recipients was another church. The court pointed out that the church failed to “indicate that the other church was in any way affiliated with it, and did not provide any evidence to show that the other church had a valid interest in the subject matter of the letter. Therefore, we conclude that a question of fact exists, with regard to the one church on the mailing list, as to whether the publication was limited to proper parties.”

Application. The relevance of this case could not be more clear – church leaders should never communicate potentially defamatory information about a member or employee to persons who are not church members. Many courts have held that churches are protected by a “qualified privilege” when sharing information with members, meaning that the information they share cannot be defamatory unless it is shared maliciously. The idea here is that members have a “common interest” in learning about internal administrative and employment decisions by church leaders, and so the law should not punish church leaders when they attempt to keep members informed. The problem in this case was that the church could not prove that the allegedly defamatory letter was sent only to members. The woman insisted that at least seventeen nonmembers, including another church, had received the letter. The church will not be forced to prove that any nonmembers (or other churches) who received the letter had a sufficient interest in the information for the qualified privilege to apply. This is not an impossible task, but it will be a very difficult one. The point is clear, church leaders should not disseminate potentially defamatory information with any nonmembers or with other congregations – without the advice of legal counsel. And, if church leaders decide to share information with members, they should do so in a way that will leave no doubt that only members received the information. The church in this case could not prove that only members received the letter, and this failure will force the church to go through the time and expense of a trial.

One more point. The “qualified privilege” is “qualified” in the sense that it will not apply to communications that are “malicious”. In this context, malice means a knowledge that the information was false, or a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity. This is a very difficult standard to meet. As a result, it is very difficult for churches to be sued successfully for defamation when they restrict the dissemination of information to members. Baker v. Spinning Road Baptist Church, 1998 WL 598094 (unpublished decision, Ohio App. 1998). Defamation

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