Judge dismisses case where pastor sued former parishioner

Judge dismisses case where pastor sued former parishioner
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.

BEAVERTON, Ore. – A judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a church pastor who claimed an online review of his church by a former parishioner was defamatory.

At the heart of the lawsuit was a simple question: Was the online review protected free speech, or did it cross the line into defamatory speech.

On Thursday, Washington County Judge Jim Fun sided with the defendants and dismissed the case.

“The court finds that the defendant’s internet postings on plaintiff’s website and defendant Julie Anne Smith’s blog site were made in a public forum and concern an issue of public interest,” Fun wrote in his ruling. 

Smith, who was one of several defendants in the case, left the Beaverton Grace Bible Church in 2008. She says she was shunned afterward, and then wrote reviews and a blog calling the pastor a "wolf" and used words like "control", "cult" and "spiritual abuse".

Pastor Chuck O'Neal sued her for defamation and asked for $500,000 in compensation.

"This case was dismissed under Oregon's anti-SLAPP law" said Linda Williams, an attorney for the defendants. "This is a powerful tool to throw out claims

which cannot ever succeed because they seek to squelch speech protected by the First Amendment and Oregon Constitution.”

“SLAPP” stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” That’s a lawsuit that aims to silence somebody who you disagree with by burdening them with legal woes.

“(O’Neal) has the right to govern his congregation in the manner in which he chooses, and defendant Julie Anne Smith is authorized by law to express her disagreement with his performance of those activities,” Fun wrote in the ruling dismissing the case.

"This is what America is all about," Smith told KATU after an earlier hearing. "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."