Put on your Sunday (Law)suit

Ashley Baxstrom: In squint-at-the-screen-to-be-sure news, The Raw Story reports that a church in Oregon is suing a woman for posting negative reviews on Google.

Of course it’s more complicated than that. To review: Julie Anne Smith left the Beaverton Grace Bible Church a few years ago. She claims she and her family were shunned by church members at the direction of Pastor Chuck O’Neal. Smith responded by posting negative reviews of BGBC on Google and DEX. (A Google search for reviews found over 600, many of which have been posted since the article broke.) “We do it with restaurants and hotels and whatnot, and I thought, why not do it with this church?” Smith told KATU.

The church is suing Smith, her daughter, and three other commenters for $500,000, claiming defamation over the use of words like “creepy,” “cult,” “control tactics” and “spiritual abuse.”

Now my immediate reaction, early in my own reading of this incident, was that the church needs to calm the heck down and can’t sue somebody for saying what they think. Get over yourselves – freedom of expression – et cetera.

But. That would be me leaping to conclusions. Silly me! Nothing is ever so simple!

The 54-page lawsuit alleges that Smith wrote that the church was spiritually indoctrinating its followers, and beyond that, that the “beloved pastor knew about a sex offender in the church who had access to the nursery and children on a weekly basis and did not have any safeguards in place.”

This is a whole different ballpark.

I don’t know if Beaverton Grace Bible Church can sue someone for calling them a cult. As I’ve written before, “cult” is an incredibly problematic term in popular, journalistic and academic society, and has become such a toss-around phrase that it’s probably considered rude, but not necessarily suit-worthy. (Mom? Dad? Got an extra $150K for law school?) The statements about sexual abuse of minors, however, really take things to a whole new level. If they are untrue, they seem to absolutely be grounds for suit claiming libel. (Written defamation, as opposed to “hateful lying slander,” or oral defamation, which O’Neal claims to have been a victim of by Smith for three years.)  Libel needs only be proven to be untrue and to do damage to a person’s reputation – whether the writer knew it was false or not, and whether or not they acted with malicious intent.

First and foremost, I sincerely hope that Smith went to the police if she believed that a person was interacting inappropriately with children at the church. (This is going to be a whole different hoopla when – or if – we even figure out what kind of “sexual offender” this person might be, if they exist. Do we need to have a discussion on the degrees of sexual offense and how a whole lot gets loped under that umbrella?) Secondly, if Smith made false claims, then she was acting either negligently or intentionally, and either one is bad. False reports being printed as fact don’t do anybody any favors – Smith, her readers, the church, the community, Google reviews and heck, let’s go with journalism and literature too. Opinion matters. But facts and the truth matter too. And we’ll all be better off if those things can complement each other.

According to an update to Smith’s blog yesterday, “The plaintiff’s attorney told the court they were dismissing one of the defendants from the lawsuit and also some of my phrases (we still need to see the court documents)” – if I had to guess, I’d say some of the cult language is less actionable. But we’ll see where the case goes – and just how the press (and commenters) follow.

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