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Law

Lying about a person’s sexuality isn’t defamation per se, court rules

Patrick Kelleher January 15, 2021
Defamation per se

A court in New York has ruled that falsely claiming a person is gay can no longer be considered defamation per se because of changing social attitudes. (Envato Elements)

Falsely claiming a person is gay can no longer be considered defamation per se because of changing attitudes towards the LGBT+ community, a New York court has ruled.

Defamation occurs when a false statement is made that injures a person’s reputation and causes them to suffer damages – but defamation per se is when that false statement is considered to be so harmful that the plaintiff does not have to prove they suffered damages.

Up until now, falsely accusing a person of being gay was considered defamation per se in parts of New York state – but a ruling from an appeals court in December 2020 finally changed that, according to NBC News.

The Supreme Court of the State of New York’s Second Department ruled on 23 December, 2020, that falsely accusing a person of being gay is no longer considered defamation per se.

The court, which sits one below the state’s highest court, found that a person can still claim defamation if they are falsely accused of being gay, but going forward, they will have to prove that they suffered damages as a result of the accusation.

The ruling came following a case that began in 2017 when Jean Renald Maurice, a pastor at the Gethsemane Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brooklyn, claimed at a meeting of 300 people that church elder Pierre Delor Laguerre was gay and that he had watched gay porn on a church computer.

Laguerre was kicked out of the church and relieved of his duties as a result of the claims. He subsequently claimed that he had faced defamation per se.

Shifting attitudes towards the LGBT+ community changed defamation law.

The Supreme Court of the State of New York’s Second Department dismissed Laguerre’s defamation claims. The court referenced a 2012 ruling from the Supreme Court’s Third Department (Yonaty v Mincolla), which covers the Capitol District and parts of Central New York, which found that falsely claiming a person is gay should not be considered defamation per se.

In its ruling, the Second Department court said the “profound and notable transformation of cultural attitudes and governmental protective laws” for LGBT+ people mean that falsely accusing a person of being gay is no longer grounds for defamation per se.

The court noted that laws criminalising same-sex sexual relations were found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003. As a result, falsely accusing a person of being gay is no longer as harmful as it once was.

The result is that those falsely accused of being gay who want to proceed with defamation lawsuits in most parts of New York will now have to prove that they suffered damages as a result of the allegation.

“Based on the foregoing, we conclude that the false imputation of homosexuality does not constitute defamation per se,” the second department court wrote.

The decision has been praised by LGBT+ legal advocates as a step forward for legal equality, however, there is still some way to go. The First and Fourth departments in New York’s Appellate Division will have to rule independently on the matter in the future, and other parts of the United States still considered a false accusation of homosexuality to be defamation per se.

More: defamation per se

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