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Church Sues Ex-Members for Defamation on Blog

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

Thou shall not post bad reviews of your church online -- unless you want to face the wrath of a vengeful lawsuit.

That's what an Oregon pastor seems to be saying, as he's filed a $500,000 defamation lawsuit against four former church members who badmouthed his church on a blog, Portland's KGW-TV reports.

But the accused defamers are fighting back against Pastor Charles O'Neal's lawsuit, with a special kind of legal action that asserts free speech under the First Amendment. Small businesses and nonprofits may want to take note of their strategy.

A lawyer for the ex-church members being sued has filed a special free-speech motion to try to get the suit dismissed, Portland's KATU-TV reports.

That motion is likely what's known as an "anti-SLAPP" motion -- a way to dismiss an allegedly frivolous lawsuit, when that lawsuit attempts to silence free speech and expression.

Anti-SLAPP (which stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) laws differ by state, but in Oregon it's a two-step process.

The accused defamers -- in this case, the ex-church members -- must first prove the pastor's lawsuit falls into a category that allows this kind of special free-speech motion. A lawsuit that targets written statements in a public forum, on an issue of public interest, fits the bill under Oregon law.

Next, the pastor can try to get the anti-SLAPP motion dismissed by showing that his lawsuit will likely prevail at trial. If the pastor can convince a judge he's likely to succeed, the anti-SLAPP motion will be dismissed, and the case will proceed in court.

Pastor Charles O'Neal's church defamation suit takes issue with his ex-church members' comments -- which used words such as "creepy," "cult," "control tactics," and "spiritual abuse," KATU reports. The ex-members' anti-SLAPP motion goes before a judge May 21.

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