The defamation claims that arise between churches or their clergy do not so far include claims by which the allegedly wronged party claimed the wrong was that their beliefs were mischaracterized, or even described pejoratively. Usually, defamation is alleged when the allegedly wronged party claims they were falsely accused of heinous misconduct, not merely beliefs the accuser held to be unpalatable. While it may seem obvious that the First Amendment would never permit a defamation claim based on the allegation that beliefs were mischaracterized, or even described pejoratively, it seems someone had to try it.
In United Federation of Churches, LLC v Johnson, Order Denying Motion for Reconsideration (WD Wash. 2022), the Plaintiff, also known as the “Satanic Temple,” alleged the Defendants violated the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. §1125. The Court opinion does not recite the precise manner in which the Defendants were alleged to have done this. But, the Plaintiff alleged their Facebook page had been compromised in some fashion. The Court rejected the cybersquatting claim because “Facebook.com” is not a domain name protected by the statute. The statute prohibits creation of identical or confusing domain names. The Plaintiff alleged the Defendants defamed them on other Facebook pages accusing Plaintiff of “ableism, misogyny, racism, fascism, and transphobia.” The federal trial court dismissed the defamation claim because “resolving the claim would require the court to violate the First Amendment by “delving into doctrinal matters,” contrary to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, in order to “define the beliefs held by” Plaintiff to determine if the allegations were untrue.
Churches with Facebook or other social media platform presences, or even pedestrian websites, should expect that critical review, even vile critical review, of their beliefs will generally be unassailable. Only when such castigation violates the Terms of Service of a platform will any recourse be available. Churches should assume that even complaints about violations of Terms of Service will likely be ineffective. Internet Trolls may be unavoidable but the sure strategy is simply to out live them.