Question: Should our church use a legal disclaimer on our emails?

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By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries

Rev. Earl D. Lane emailed me yesterday with a question:

Are most churches putting legal signatures at the bottom of their emails? Should we?

Here is my response, with a couple additions, and his permission to share his question:

Great question. As fortune would have it, I quickly found this article (LINK) from when I looked into this matter a few years ago. The legal signature, or email disclaimer as they are often referred to, on the bottom of a colleague’s email caught my eye and I asked myself a similar question.

To summarize the article’s argument, the author suggests that email disclaimers at the bottom of an message would have little bearing in court because of the way they assert an agreement that isn’t really there. Or as The Economist puts it, “they are mostly, legally speaking, pointless.” You can’t bind someone to a particular action legally by declaring it in the footer of your email; and opening an email, without knowing its contents in advance, is hardly an act that screams consent.

But I might differ with the author’s conclusion that people ignore them anyway. In the business context where people see them all the time, perhaps that is the case. But as I mentioned, I tend to notice email disclaimers because I don’t see them as often in our ministry context. They always feel a bit out of place, if I’m honest. Now, if we all started to use them that might easily change…

Another opinion on this legal blog (LINK) suggests that intentional use, and careful wording, might make a difference though sample cases were thin. The author, Scott Talkov writes, “To maximize the chances that such a disclaimer might be found effective, it may be better practice to place it at the beginning, not the end, of an email.”

At the end of the day, I might recommend using email disclosures, if at all, solely in emails that warrant it. And if your goal is not to threaten or gain legal protection, it might be just as effective to simply name your expectation as you compose that message. Released from the pressure to speak in legalize, we might even use or reference Scriptural language to ground our concerns for confidentiality, or ownership, in our values.

I decided against using email disclaimers myself because I didn’t want people to feel like they were getting a response from a lawyer or real estate agent. And from a legal standpoint they seemed kinda pointless. I do try to take care to ask people to hold sensitive information in confidence, but I’d never trust that message to the footer.

That said, here is my disclosure. I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. 🙂

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