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How to avoid a defamation lawsuit

By David Middlebrook

The extensive use of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, streaming sermon videos, podcasts and blogging, has placed many churches into a public arena with potential legal and public relations consequences. Social media has been a good thing for the spreading of the Gospel, allowing churches to have an immediate and global impact for Christ as well as the opportunity to create a sense of community within the church. However, as with all human endeavors, problems can and do occur.

One example involves First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, FL, that recently settled a defamation lawsuit against a formerly anonymous blogger who filed a complaint in 2009 after having been labeled by the pastor from the pulpit as “obsessive compulsive” and a “sociopath.” The pastor was reacting to statements made on a blog deemed to be critical of the church.

Another example of defamation involves a lawsuit filed in 2012 against a former church member of Beaverton Grace Bible Church, OR, who was apparently blogging about her experience and allegedly making negative online reviews of the pastor and the church.

Neither of these examples involved a church employee using social media to make allegedly defamatory remarks, but there have been instances where church blogs have resulted in legal trouble for the church and its leadership, whether culminating in a judgment from a lawsuit or an expensive legal settlement of a pending lawsuit.

Common sense can go a long way
Be careful what you say and what you type. Since most people are more likely to “hide behind the keyboard” and type something they wouldn’t say in person, ask yourself: “If the recipient of the e-mail was standing next to me, would I say or type the same words?”

Church defamation lawsuits seem to be increasing, and churches need to address this issue with all staff and volunteers, especially those whose job description (employee) or position description (volunteer) entails interacting with social media on behalf of the church.
Libel is written defamation and slander is spoken defamation. Context does matter practically though and while it is true that truth is always a possible defense, keep in mind that proving something is true can be a time-consuming and expensive legal and public relations process.

Develop a social media policy
Generally, you want to establish guidelines and rules for social media use, including the various roles and responsibilities of key employees and/or volunteers. A key point is recognizing that social media sites are never really private and information can and does become public. When responding to church critics via social media, it is a good idea to run it by legal counsel for the church before “returning volley” or placing a “warning shot across the bow” of critics.

It is best to have the social media policy and Christian code of conduct within the employee handbook or otherwise signed by the responsible employee or volunteer. If you adopt an appropriate and comprehensive written policy and train staff and volunteers about the legal environment, including the need to avoid making defamatory remarks or any kind of knee-jerk response to a situation or criticism in the use of social media, you will likely avoid defamation lawsuits and other forms of liability from your church’s use of social media.

David Middlebrook is a partner with Anthony and Middlebrook of The Church Law Group, Grapevine, TX. www.churchlawgroup.com

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