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Here's a funny situation I've just found myself in. Over the past year I've been trying to disclose to a U.S. based organization details of the foreign organization they are supporting that indicate it might not be on the up and up.

I'm specifically concerned that it is exploiting children of vulnerable families as value propositions (as so-called "orphans") and profiting off of the foreign contributions. There is a potential that some of the children are being unnecessarily held in an institution away from their families, on a long-term basis and to their lifelong detriment. My concerns were effectively dismissed.

A few weeks ago, a member of the organization contacted me, soliciting a donation. I replied with a text message qualifying my concern as a "serious possibility" that the organization is "actively supporting the trafficking of children".

Yesterday, I got a signed letter demanding that I retract my statement (in a private text message) or turn over my evidence (which I qualified as credible) within seven days.

I have many reasons to be suspicious of both the local and foreign organizations, just based on their behavior. However, looking back, I suppose the term 'actively' could imply intent, when I just meant to convey that the activity is ongoing via their continued funding activities (despite all the evidence I have already brought). Other than that, I stand by my concerns as stated in the text message.

Anyway, this isn't a statement I've made publicly. The only people I've expressed my concerns to, aside from the organization itself, is my parents and my wife's parents. However, they have shared with a few friends, and so on, so some people are aware that something is amiss. I feel like the organization is just clumsily trying to intimidate me here, so I'm very hesitant to go to the trouble and expense of looking for a lawyer.

Can a charitable organization bring a defamation case before a judge based on a single text message?

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    Speech from you to A can't support a defamation suit by A against you. You would have had to communicated something about A to a third party. – user3851 Apr 12 '16 at 16:59
  • Well, I communicated with someone who works for the organization, but I don't know if he is on their payroll, or if he is paid on the side by the org's president, so I'm not sure where that falls. – Adam Starrh Apr 12 '16 at 19:58
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Defamation laws do not distinguish between charitable organizations and others: however, in the US there are special considerations for "public figures" (they are not afforded as much protection). The medium does not matter -- texting, blogging, letter-writing, whatever. The defamatory statement need not have been received by a wide audience – it suffices that the message was received by one person other than the person being defamed. A single defamatory act is all it takes: there is no requirement of there being an established and repeated practice of defaming. One way to defend against a charge of defamation is to show that the statement is true. An alternative is to show that the statement is incapable of being proven true or false (e.g. calling someone a "jerk" doesn't assert a factual proposition). A careful scrutiny of the actual statement, performed by an attorney specializing in such matters, is really the only way to know whether words like "may", "possibly" would make a statement an expression of opinion rather than a statement of fact.

A person suing for defamation would have to have suffered a loss, but there is a category of false statements, per se defamation, considered to be so injurious that damage need not be proven. That included allegations of criminal activity and allegations of professional incompetence, either of which could be applicable in the context you are describing.

The First Amendment provides much protection against such suits, which may not exist in other countries. Because of this, a law was recently passed in the US, 28 USC 111, which says that domestic courts will not enforce a foreign defamation judgment that is inconsistent with the First Amendment.

[Addendum]

This part is crucial: "The only people I've expressed my concerns to, aside from the organization itself, is my parents and my wife's parents. However, they have shared with a few friends...". If you alleged illegal behavior to your parents, that's a problem. If you only said e.g. "I have concerns", that's not a problem. It would also matter in what way you tried "to disclose to a U.S. based organization details of the foreign organization they are supporting that indicate it might not be on the up and up".

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  • I guess I'd better find a lawyer then. Thanks for the explanation. – Adam Starrh Apr 12 '16 at 19:59
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The medium you use to defame is irrelevant, however, Defamation requires disclosure to a third-party. An employee or agent of an organisation (and acting in that capacity) is not a third-party. If your message was sent to the organisation only there is no defamation; if they choose to disclose it then that is not defamation either. If you had included enough information in your question here that someone could identify the organisation then that could be defamation (unless it were true).

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  • Thanks for the advice. I didn't realize that this could be the crux of the issue, but it does make me feel alot better. – Adam Starrh Apr 12 '16 at 21:32
  • OTOH, whereas the text message doesn't defame the local organization, it does defame the foreign one. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Apr 13 '16 at 9:23
  • Well, that would have to be settled in a foreign court, right? Or could the local org sue me locally on the foreign org's behalf? – Adam Starrh Apr 13 '16 at 16:21
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I am not a lawyer, so double check with a real one but your "funny" situation looks "fishy" to me.

For our purposes, there are three parties: you, the U.S. organization, and the foreign organization. "Defamation" suits can only be brought by third parties. If you tell your best friend, "I think your spouse is running around on you," your friend can't sue you; only the spouse can. Likewise, if you told someone, X, "you're fly is down," they can't sue you even if the statement is false. Only if you told a third party, Y, "X's fly is down," could X sue you if this is untrue.

I'm assuming that you got the "nasty letter" from the domestic organization, and that it is the same one that solicited the donation. They can't make you retract a statement that you made to them in good faith. Only the foreign organization can, by saying that you defamed them to the domestic organization. Note: a text message you sent to an employee of the domestic organization is sent to the domestic organization itself, not a "third party."

Perhaps the letter might be connected to your prior efforts to warn the domestic organization about the foreign organization. All this makes me wonder, why is the domestic organization trying to so hard to "protect" the foreign organization. Beyond a certain point,and under certain circumstances, they may have a legal duty to investigate claims against the foreign organization, and disassociate themselves from it if found to be true. This is a duty they seem to be unwilling to undertake.

It seems to me that the domestic organization suspects that the charges are true, and that they are scared stiff that people will "connect the dots" regarding their connection to the practices of the foreign organization. They (probably) do not have standing to sue you on behalf of the foreign organization and of they did so and lost, you would have grounds for a countersuit. If your evidence is reasonably credible, you have a strong defense.

You may wish to share your evidence with the domestic corporation to help them to do their duty and due diligence. Don't "turn over" your evidence to the point where they can destroy it.

"Where there's smoke, there's fire." They are trying "too hard" to scare you. That means to me that they have something to scared about. You don't want this to come to a fight, but if it does, the domestic organization probably has more to lose than you do.

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  • You've read the situation pretty well. We have a lot of evidence of misdeeds and lies and have shown it all to them. They've been ignoring it for years. My evidence would be pretty damning if I had their earlier claims in writing, but they are adept at keeping a flexible interpretation of their own history. I'm not sure how far I would get in court if they can simply deny they said what they said. – Adam Starrh Feb 6 at 20:41
  • As a follow-up, I did end up contacting a family attorney who helped me craft a response and they sent a final letter with further admonishment and said they were dropping the matter. – Adam Starrh Feb 6 at 20:43
  • @AdamStarrh: I would guess that the gist of the "final" letter was "let's keep this between ourselves, shall we." They know that they can't sue if you don't tell third parties, and they've put you on notice that they (probably) will if you do. law.stackexchange.com/questions/773/… In your shoes, I would "lie in wait." Don't do anything now, but if a public statement or development emerges after which a lawyer tells you that you can release the information, you might want to do so. – Libra Feb 6 at 23:16
  • Yeah, we've been very clear about our concerns with some other supporters that we know, showing only what we can prove and encouraging them to raise the same questions we have. I've been super careful about what I say since the org's religious affiliations would offer it a tremendous advantage in the local courts. – Adam Starrh Feb 7 at 22:43
  • Just realized I necroed this pretty hard. For some reason, I thought I got a notification indicating that this was a new answer! – Adam Starrh Feb 7 at 22:47

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