Church Loses Defamation Action

 “…the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts…the tongue also is a fire…”    James 3:5 (NIV)

Last year, we reported on a Supreme Court of British Columbia decision chastising a Church over its failure to comply with its own bylaws.  A former elder had sued the Church when he felt that the election process for the new minister had not been properly followed.  The Court found that the Church had failed to follow their own internal rules of procedure and sent the Church back to do it over again, but this time correctly.  The case emphasized the need to clearly draft Church bylaws and then follow them.  It also implied that an internal dispute resolution procedure might be implemented in order to avoid Christian disputes ending up before the Courts. 

But that was not the end of the matter.  The Church published a notice in a newspaper and made a report available to its congregants about the outcome of the Court decision.  Unfortunately, they inaccurately recited what actually happened and misinterpreted the Judge’s ruling.   The elder sued again, this time for libel.

The Court reviewed the Church’s publications and found: 

The obvious intention of the publication was to communicate a version of what occurred in court that made the plaintiff [elder] appear to have substantially lost the case and to have succeeded on a small and unimportant point which was granted merely to stop him and others from complaining.  It was published to the church community in a manner meant to ensure wide dissemination among its members.

The Court found that the Church had defamed the elder and awarded damages of $5,000, as well as legal costs.  

There are two kinds of defamation: libel and slander.  Libel is defamation that is published.  This traditionally has been associated with words in writing but can also include pictures, television, recordings, etc.  Slander is generally understood to be spoken words.  The important distinction is that someone who is claiming slander must prove not only what was said but also that damage was suffered.  A person claiming libel only needs to prove what was published, and does not need to establish any damage caused by it.  Similarly, the intent or motivation of the person who published the libelous statement is irrelevant. 

While the Church did have a right to communicate the outcome of the lawsuit to its congregants, but the nature and accuracy of communication is critical.  By failing to be accurate, the Church became embroiled in yet further litigation, incurring significant additional expense.

If you are in doubt about whether a statement might be consider defamatory, consider the comments of the Court:

…A publication is defamatory if it lowers the reputation of the plaintiff in the estimation of others, that is, if it tends or has a tendency to injure, prejudice or disparage the plaintiff in the eyes of others, or lowers the good opinion, esteem or regard which others have for him, or causes him to be shunned or avoided or exposes him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule.

As set out in Proverbs 21:23, “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity”.  Whether it is a prayer chain, the bulletin or pronouncements from the pulpit, guard carefully any statements made about individuals and pay particular attention to what is published.  The Church can and will be held to a high standard on what it publishes.  To be careless with words is to play with fire. 

This article was written by Robert G. Kuhn, a lawyer who practices in charity and not-for-profit law with the law firm of Kuhn LLP. It is only intended as a guide and cannot cover every situation. It is important to get legal advice for specific situations. If you have questions or comments about this case or other construction law matters, please contact us at 604-864-8877.