Robinson Bradshaw Petitions U.S. Supreme Court in First Amendment Case



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March 3, 2021

Robinson Bradshaw filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States on the question of how the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment apply to defamation claims. Robinson Bradshaw is asking the Court to resolve the conflicting views that lower courts have taken on this question.

The case involves a church pianist who had a dispute with the church’s minister of music. The dispute led to discussions within the church about whether the pianist should be dismissed, but the congregation then voted to allow the pianist to remain in her position. Before and after the vote, the church’s pastor and music minister made a number of damaging statements about the pianist and her husband. The couple filed a suit against the two leaders for defamation based on those statements.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants on the ground that the First Amendment bars defamation claims that arise from ecclesiastical settings. Appellate courts in other jurisdictions have reached a contrary conclusion, holding that defamation claims arising from ecclesiastical settings may go forward if the claims can be resolved using neutral principles of law. Robinson Bradshaw’s petition states the “First Amendment should not produce different outcomes in defamation cases based solely on geographic happenstance” and asks the Court to “resolve the conflict and secure uniformity on this important federal question.”

Robinson Bradshaw attorneys Julian H. Wright Jr., Erik R. Zimmerman and Brandon LaRose represent the pianist and her husband in this case. The case is Lippard v. Holleman, No. 20-1174, and a copy of the petition is available here.

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