On March 1, 2012, Beaverton, Oregon church pastor, Patrick O’Neal, filed suit against Julie Anne Smith, her daughter, and three other former members of his congregation, claiming that their negative posts on Smith’s “Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors” blog cost the church $500,000 in damages.
Linda Williams, attorney for defendant Julie Anne Smith, said that to equate the negative posts with half a million dollars in damages would be “extremely difficult” to prove. “[They] just didn’t cause that much damage,” she reasoned.
Smith has since filed a free speech motion, claiming that her critical comments online were protected by free speech rights and the First Amendment. “It may not be what [they] want to hear,” Smith said, and continued on to explain that she “absolutely had the right” to post her criticism and feelings about the congregation online.
The issue began a few years ago when Smith left the church to find one better suited to her spiritual beliefs. According to documents, since Smith left, former church friends and members inexplicably began shunning her in public. After meeting with others in the community who had also left the church, Smith realized that she was not the only one in town to experience the same strange happenings. Others, like Smith, started popping up and expressing dismay over the “creepy” and “cult-like” treatment they received after leaving the church.
Smith posted a negative review in Google Reviews, and other members answered her post with a barrage of positive feedback. To give a voice to people who felt harmed by the church, Smith started the blog entitled “Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors.”
Since the defamation lawsuit was filed, Julie Anne Smith says she’s been met with tons of positive support from others who left Beaverton Grace Bible church. Both she and her defendant expect the case to be dismissed, whether through the freedom of speech motion or through the trial process.
Online libel is still a young subset of defamation law, and while there are precedents, it’s never a certainty which way a jury or judge will sway when deciding the outcome of a cyberlibel lawsuit.
For their part, Beaverton Grace Bible Church representatives have declined to comment. According to reports, the church’s answering machine was completely full when television reporters tried to call.