Oregon church sues ex-members for defamation over blog criticizing church's practices

Julie Anne Smith, woman behind Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors blog, has right to free speech: attorney

New York Daily News/May 14, 2012

Thou shalt not bad-mouth your former church on the Internet.

That's the message a pastor in Oregon is apparently championing in a lawsuit against former members of th Beaverton Grace Bible Church, claiming their statements online amount to defamation — equivalent to $500,000 in damages, according to reports.

Church pastor Charles O'Neal filed the suit March 1, citing words such as "creepy," "cult," and "spiritual abuse" as defaming his house of worship outside Portland, said local TV station KGW.

The suit sets up a May 21 hearing with freedom of speech at the forefront.

"It would be extremely difficult to determine that wording or posting caused that tremendous $500,000 worth of damage," Linda Williams, an attorney for defendant Julie Anne Smith, told KGW. "It just didn't."

Smith said she left Beaverton Grace Bible a couple of years ago and was inexplicably shunned by members when she saw them in public. She started asking why, and voiced her frustrations with the church online in Google reviews, she said.

Those reviews were countered with positive online posts about the church, she told ABC affiliate KATU-TV, and so she started her own blog in February called "Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors."

"What somebody does in their church is one thing, but when you get out in society, we have the right to free speech," Smith told KATU. "It may not be what people want to hear, but we absolutely have that right."

Smith and her daughter were named in the church's suit along with three other commenters.

Church staff declined to respond, KATU said, and the church's voicemail was full and not taking messages Sunday.

Smith, meanwhile, filed a free speech motion to have the pastor's suit dismissed.

She posted on her blog Sunday that the attention has been positive.

"Not only has it touched my heart, but the hearts of a multitude of families who have suffered silently from this experience," she wrote.

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