Recent Developments in Oregon Regarding Defamation

An Oregon court ruled that statements made by a pastor were not protected by a qualified privilege, and as a result the pastor could be sued for defamation as a result of statements he made publicly about a member of the congregation.

Church Law and Tax1999-09-01


Key point. Statements in church meetings are protected by a qualified privilege. This means that they cannot be defamatory, even if false, unless the person making the statement did so with malice. In this context, malice means a knowledge that the statement was false, or a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.

An Oregon court ruled that statements made by a pastor were not protected by a qualified privilege, and as a result the pastor could be sued for defamation as a result of statements he made publicly about a member of the congregation. A church member’s three children were injured when the car they were driving was struck by the daughter of another church member. The pastor informed the church board, and the congregation itself, that the father whose children were injured was having his children pretend to be injured in order to obtain a larger settlement from the other driver’s insurance company. Neither the pastor, nor any other church member, ever investigated the facts to ascertain the extent of damage done to the car or the injuries suffered by the passengers. The pastor did not know whether the children, in fact, were injured by the accident. The children’s parents sued the pastor, claiming that he had defamed them and invaded their privacy. They also sued the church as the pastor’s employer. The pastor and church argued that they were protected by a “qualified privilege” that prevented the pastor’s comments to be defamatory. A jury disagreed, and awarded the parents $200,000 in damages.

Qualified Privilege

The court assumed, without deciding, that Oregon law recognizes a qualified privilege in the context of statements made in the course of church proceedings. This means that statements made during such proceedings cannot be defamatory. However, the court cautioned that the qualified privilege may be lost in two ways: (1) “if a plaintiff demonstrates that the individual making the defamatory statement either lacked objectively reasonable grounds for the statement or did not, in fact, believe the statement to be true”; or (2) “upon proof that it was uttered for a motive unrelated to the purpose of the privilege.” The court concluded that the pastor “lacked a reasonable basis for his statements and that he made those statements for other than a religious purpose.” The court explained:

He testified that he did not know, and made no effort to determine, whether the children, in fact, were injured, even though he told others repeatedly that they were not. He testified that he did not know, and made no effort to determine, whether, in fact, plaintiffs encouraged their children to submit false insurance claims, even though he told others repeatedly that plaintiffs did precisely that. Moreover, there was evidence of a personal grudge against plaintiffs, arising out of [the father’s] challenge to [the pastor’s] authority regarding the construction and ownership of the new church building, and that [the pastor] made the defamatory statements because of that grudge, not for a religious purpose.

Invasion of Privacy

The jury also determined that the pastor had invaded the privacy of the children’s parents. There are many varieties of invasion of privacy, including acts that place another in a “false light” in the public eye. The jury determined that the pastor’s statements placed the parents in a false light by repeatedly accusing them of falsifying their children’s condition to obtain a larger insurance settlement. The appeals court defined “false light” invasion of privacy as follows:

One who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if (a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E.

The pastor insisted that he could not be liable for “false light” invasion of privacy for a couple of reasons. First, he claimed that the parents failed to prove the element of publication. According to the pastor, to prevail on a false light invasion of privacy claim, the parents had to establish that he published false information about them “to the public at large.” The court disagreed, noting that publication is established by proof that “the false information reached or was sure to reach either the public generally or a large number of persons in [the parents’] work community.” In this case, “there was evidence that plaintiffs’ entire community of friends, relatives and acquaintances were members of the church and that [the pastor] made false statements about [them] in church meetings of hundreds of members at a time. We conclude that the evidence was sufficient as to the element of publication.”

The pastor also claimed that the parents failed to prove the element of malice, which he insisted requires evidence of actual intent to harm. Once again, the court disagreed. It noted that “in this case, there is evidence that [the pastor] repeatedly made false statements with no regard for their truth or falsity.”

Application. This case is important, because it illustrates that statements made to church boards and congregations may result in liability if they are false and made with malice. While in many states comments made in the course of church meetings are protected by a qualified privilege, this privilege is not absolute. Rather, it is “qualified,” or limited, as the pastor and church discovered in this case. Muresan v. Philadelphia Romanian Pentecostal Church, 962 P.2d 711 (Or. App. 1998).[ Defamation, Defamation]

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