Judge weighing whether church defamation suit can proceed

Judge weighing whether church defamation suit can proceed »Play Video
Julie Anne Smith (in green shirt) is being sued by her former pastor, Chuck O'Neal, second from right, over comments she made about him online.

HILLSBORO, Ore. - A judge heard arguments during a court hearing Friday and will decide in a little over a week whether a lawsuit will go forward against former Beaverton church members who wrote negative comments about a church online.

At issue is whether the comments were free speech or defamatory.

One side says this is about the freedom to say what you think and how you feel online. The other side says the former church members crossed the line when they criticized their pastor, Chuck O'Neal.

Julie Anne Smith is one of the three women being sued. She left the Beaverton Grace Bible Church in 2008. She says she was shunned afterward and wrote reviews and a blog calling the pastor a "wolf" and used words like "control", "cult" and "spiritual abuse". O'Neal sued and he is asking for $500,000.

On Friday, the judge heard arguments about whether that suit should be dismissed because of freedom of speech.

"This is what America is all about," Smith said outside the courtroom. "We need to be able to speak freely even if it's not polite or falls on ears that really (don't) want to hear this kind of thing."

But Erik Syverson, the attorney representing O'Neal countered saying, "If you make a false statement of fact concerning someone that can harm them in their profession or career, they're entitled to financial compensation. The First Amendment doesn't protect defamation."

One of the big issues in the case is about a sex offender who the women say went to the church. O'Neal says they falsely claimed that he harbored abusers at the church. The judge asked both sides for extra information regarding the harboring a sex offender comments. Both sides appeared to agree that a sex offender was at the church but whether he was being harbored is in dispute.

The judge's decision could have far-reaching consequences on what can be written on the Internet, especially regarding reviews. 

The judge said he will write out his decision by Monday, July 23.