Pastor, Church & Law

Defamation—In General

§ 4.02

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.

If the words are oral, the defamation is sometimes called slander. If the words are written, the defamation may be referred to as libel. Although this terminology is still widely used, there is a tendency to refer to both slander and libel as defamation.

Defamation involves injury to another’s reputation rather than feelings. To illustrate, the courts have held that it is defamatory to say of another that he refuses to pay his just debts, that he is immoral, about to be divorced, a hypocrite, a liar, a scoundrel, a crook, or a swindler.4 See generally Annot., 87 A.L.R.2d 453 (1963).In each instance, a court concluded that the victim’s esteem or reputation had in fact been adversely affected.

But not every derogatory statement is defamatory. For example, one court ruled that it was not defamatory for a religious official to tell a minister that she should have consulted with her religious superiors before choosing a particular minister as her co-pastor since the denomination had “been after [him] for a long time.” The court found these remarks to be “wholly lacking in defamatory content” and “not capable of a defamatory meaning.”5 Joiner v. Weeks, 383 So.2d 101, 103 (La. 1980).Other statements that the courts have ruled are not defamatory include newspaper articles describing ex-members’ criticisms of a church;6 Missouri Church of Scientology v. Adams, 543 S.W.2d 776 (Mo. 1976) (court refused to decide whether a church “can maintain an action for libel on the basis of statements as to its tenets and practices in the light of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution”).derogatory statements contained in a letter to a minister when the person who sent the letter had no reason to believe that the minister would share it with others;7 Bretz v. Mayer, 203 N.E.2d 665 (Ohio 1963) (defamation requires that the defamatory statements be published or publicly disseminated).and a newspaper article referring to a minister as the “former pastor” of a church.8 Nichols v. Item Publishers, 113 N.Y.S.2d 701 (1952).

Key point. The related issue of church liability for defamatory statements is addressed in section 10-15.

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