The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Free Speech

Satanic Temple Loses Libel Lawsuit


From a 2021 decision by Judge Richard Jones (W.D. Wash.) in United Federation of Churches, LLC d/b/a The Satanic Temple v. Johnson, just reaffirmed yesterday on denial of a motion for reconsideration:

[According to the Complaint,] Plaintiff United Federation of Churches, LLC ("The Satanic Temple") is a religious organization. As such, its mission is to "encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will." To that end, it espouses "seven fundamental tenets." Among them are beliefs such as, "[o]ne's body is inviolable, subject to one's own will alone," and "[o]ne should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one's beliefs."

Two former members posted material "suggest[ing] that the Washington Chapter [of the Temple] had supported 'ableism, misogyny, and racism,' transphobia, and police brutality" and levying allegedly "false claims that [The Satanic Temple] leadership is cozy with the alt-right, are white supremacists, [and] are generally insufficiently leftist." The Temple sued for libel, but the court dismissed the claim:

The First Amendment limits the role of civil courts in resolving "religious controversies that incidentally affect civil rights." Known in this circuit as the "doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention," the doctrine maintains that "civil courts may not [ ]determine the correctness of an interpretation of canonical text or some decision relating to government of the religious polity." …

This claim asserts that certain Defendants made false public statements about The Satanic Temple, a religious organization…. [But t]he Court may not resolve the defamation claim without delving into doctrinal matters. To determine whether Defendants' statements were defamatory, the Court or jury must inevitably determine that the statements were false. That would require the Court or jury to define the beliefs held by The Satanic Temple and to determine that ableism, misogyny, racism, fascism, and transphobia fall outside those beliefs. That the Court cannot do without violating the First Amendment….

I'm not sure that this is right, given that the claims weren't about the true meaning of religious doctrine, but rather about the alleged actions of the group's leaders—it seems to me that such claims could be decided without considering doctrine (though perhaps they wouldn't be libelous for other reasons, such as that they are opinions). Nonetheless, I wanted to note the decision for our readers.

There were also claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, the Washington Consumer Protection Act, and the state law tort of interference with business expectancy, but those were dismissed for other reasons.