Following up on more of the writing exercises, I was presented with an interesting study of a possible invasion of privacy and libel case. While I don’t know too much of the law side of those possibilities, there is an underlying understanding that communication plays an essential role in helping put together reconciliation plans. I decided to try and delve into the subject to see if I could come up with anything of any value.
**For copyright reasons, I will not be sharing the case study here. Apologies if there’s any confusion in the things I say as there is no reference for you to see.
Regardless of how a situation arises involving the divulging of personal information, the stakes can be ridiculously high. In this instance, Steve has decided to divulge private information to the leaders of his church. Upon doing so, it was only then that the leaders informed him that they would be passing those private indiscretions on to the other members of the church. Further along, the leaders share the information to social media and with other people in Steve’s life. The main question revolving around the entire affair: Does Steve have a potential libel and invasion of privacy case? With just the base information, it would seem that Steve does have a case, but closer analysis is necessary to truly figure out the severity of the situation.
The four privacy torts are set in place to determine and define what privacies have been violated. In this particular case with Steve and the church, two of the privacy torts were technically breached, however, there are two sides to the entire affair. The first tort is the public disclosure of private facts, and the second is false light. The first and foremost tort, public disclosure of private facts, is predominant in the church’s decision.
From one side of the coin, Steve knowingly and voluntarily provided the private indiscretions to the leaders of the church. The church leaders did not inform Steve that his information would be made public until after he disclosed the information. Given that it was church doctrine that dictated he do so, Steve was understandably reasoned and convinced his information would remain private, thus he openly shared his private information. The issue, however, is whether or not the church leaders invaded his privacy.
Even though Steve gave up his information voluntarily, the church leaders were almost deceitful by not telling him his information would be shared with others. At first, the information was to be shared with other members of the church, but after a time, it was then told to his neighbors, employer, friends, and family. Even though the situation sounds like blackmail given that Steve threatened to leave the church, the point of disclosing private information to the public remains prominent.
The second tort, false light, is also a possible problem. Aspects of Steve’s life remain unknown, but perhaps those private indiscretions are small and innocuous, but by revealing them to the public, they could possibly defame and embarrass him, thus creating a false light. Even though these indiscretions are inherently true, assuming Steve was speaking the truth about them upon disclosure, they still work to attempt to portray him in a negative light. These indiscretions are being broadcast, for lack of a better word, for the sole purpose of forcing Steve to embrace them and fix the problems, but it still spreads false word about the kind of person Steve may be in every other aspect.
As aforementioned, given that the indiscretions were words spoken by Steve and thus true, libel would not apply to this situation. Libel is a false statement made publicly about another person with the impure intention of causing them harm. Yes, the revealed information may harm Steve, but the information is not incorrect or false as it was spoken by Steve as truth.
Even if this were a libel case, several limitations and stipulations exist when correlating a relationship between libel and social media. The largest question is whether or not social media and the posts found therein are considered actual media. In the case of Ascend Health Corporation v. Wells, it was determined that, “blogs and other social media communications were not similar to a newspaper or “periodical” and, therefore, not entitled to fair reporting privilege.” Basically, the privileges and rights practiced in libel suits show different criteria and status when referring to social media.
Further evidence was presented in that particular case that eventually led the judge to the decision that another law regarding business disparagement was evident. The case may not have been considered libel as it stands, but the actions on social media led to further instances of grievances and unlawful activities. The main reason that Steve’s case would not be considered libel is simply because Steve would not be considered a public figure, nor would the church in the technical sense, thus the negligence and malice of the church falls under a different category. In Steve’s case, the social media posts would not be considered libel, however, the invasion of privacy is still on the forefront.
As it was previously mentioned, Steve was under the impression that any information he would be conveying to the church leaders was to remain private. Because of this, the expectation of privacy would not be considered reasonable. On the surface, the base definition of the words expectation of privacy, along with the situation of Steve expecting the information to remain private, assumes it is reasonable. Unfortunately, Steve voluntarily provided the information to the church leaders.
Steve assumed everything would remain private, however, his knowing consent dictates that the information was willingly handed over. The expectation of privacy in relation to the Fourth Amendment calls for the information or asset to be unwarranted or illegally obtained. Steve gave his indiscretions to the church leaders with a reasonable expectation that it would remain between them, but it was not illegally obtained by any means.
If Steve were to pursue a lawsuit for invasion of privacy where he would push for the two torts previously mentioned, certain defenses would be used against him in an attempt to dismiss the case. In this instance, the two most likely defenses would consist of consent and contributory negligence. Consent, at its most basic core, dictates that the plaintiff willingly, knowingly, and consensually provided the information being used against him or her. Contributory negligence is a situation where the plaintiff, showing negligence in some form, has contributed, also in some form, to his or her own defamation.
Consent is uncommon simply because even though a person may willingly give up information, it is often done under the pretext that it will remain confidential. If the church leaders had informed Steve of their intention to divulge what he would say to others, Steve might have refrained from disclosing anything at all. Without the preamble and forewarning of the church’s actions, Steve’s consent was done through innocuous intentions. Steve agrees to disclose his indiscretions, but it was under false pretenses.
Contributory negligence could possibly be found in this situation. Steve knew that the information he was providing was ill-natured, but again, it was done with the assumption of it remaining confidential. Negligence is a common entity among claimants, but often proves to be inconsequential if all information is not present. In other words, because of the church’s lack of forewarning prior to the disclosure, it was not negligence. Arguably, Steve should have asked if the information would remain private amongst all present parties. This would have secured Steve’s reasoning for approving or denying the church’s request for his indiscretions.
However, it is completely possible that Steve should never have needed to ask for clarification. A strong majority of congregations and church attendees view their relationship with their church leaders in much the same way a patient shares information with a doctor. Pastors, ministers, and other church leaders have a fiduciary duty to the people within their organization. Unfortunately, this duty is a double-edged sword, as it is possible the church may make a decision that best serves the interest of the church over anything else.
There is such a thing as clergy-penitent privilege which prohibits any direct workers of the church from divulging confidential information. The clergy-penitent privilege dictates that the responsibility of releasing any information belongs solely to the person that disclosed the information in the first place. Basically, the church in Steve’s situation clearly took a questionable, ethical, and moral standpoint by breaking the clergy-penitent privilege.
Steve, like many other people, felt a sense of ease and trust within the confines of his church. As a member of that church, Steve assumed any information he would divulge, a requirement of the church doctrine, would remain private. His assumptions proved false as the church publicly released the information Steve provided in private. An invasion of privacy took place in the form of public disclosure of private facts and false light. It can be argued that these two torts were not infringed upon, however, the harm has already been done to Steve.
Even though Steve’s case is not technically considered libel, there are several defenses to the defamation claim that can be made. It can be said that Steve consented in his information and that he was negligent in divulging it. The church clearly violated the clergy-penitent privilege afforded Steve. This particular lawsuit has an unknown outcome, but face value says that Steve has a good chance of proving his rights were violated in this situation.