In law, false light is a tort concerning privacy that is similar to the tort of defamation. The privacy laws in the United States include a non-public person's right to protection from publicity which puts the person in a false light to the public. That right is balanced against the First Amendment right of free speech. False light differs from defamation primarily in being intended "to protect the plaintiff's mental or emotional well-being", rather than to protect a plaintiff's reputation as is the case with the tort of defamation and in being about the impression created rather than being about veracity. If a publication of information is false, then a tort of defamation might have occurred. If that communication is not technically false but is still misleading, then a tort of false light might have occurred.
False light privacy claims often arise under the same facts as defamation cases, and therefore not all states recognize false light actions. There is a subtle difference in the way courts view the legal theories—false light cases are about damage to a person's personal feelings or dignity, whereas defamation is about damage to a person's reputation.
The specific elements of the tort of false light vary considerably, even among those jurisdictions which do recognize this Tort. Generally, these elements consist of the following:
A publication by the defendant about the plaintiff; made with actual malice (very similar to that type required by New York Times v. Sullivan in "Defamation" cases); which places the Plaintiff in a false light; AND that would be highly offensive (i.e., embarrassing to reasonable persons).
Some U.S. state courts have ruled that false light lawsuits brought under their states' laws must be rewritten as defamation lawsuits; these courts generally base their opinion on the premises that a) any publication or statement giving rise to a false-light claim will also give rise to a defamation claim, such that the set of statements creating false light is necessarily, although not by definition, entirely within the set of statements constituting defamation; and b) the standard of what would be "highly offensive" or "embarrassing" to a reasonable person is much more difficult to apply than is the state's standard for defamation, such that the potential penalties for violating the former standard would have an unconstitutional or otherwise unacceptable chilling effect on the media. However, "most states do allow false light claims to be brought, even where a defamation claim would suffice." Roughly two-thirds of states do not recognize the false light claim. The states that do recognize it will not allow a plaintiff to maintain suit for both false light and defamation.
1 Examples 2 See also 3 Sources and notes 4 External links
In Peoples Bank & Trust Co. v. Globe Int'l, Inc., a tabloid
newspaper printed the picture of a 96-year-old Arkansas woman next to
the headline “SPECIAL DELIVERY: World's oldest newspaper carrier,
101, quits because she's pregnant! I guess walking all those miles
kept me young.” The woman (who in fact was not pregnant), Nellie
Mitchell, who had run a small newsstand on the town square since 1963,
prevailed at trial under a theory of false light invasion of privacy.
She was awarded damages of $1.5M. The tabloid appealed, generally
disputing the offensiveness and falsity of the photograph, arguing
that Mitchell had not actually been injured, and claiming that
Mitchell had failed to prove that any employee of the tabloid knew or
had reason to know that its readers would conclude that the story
about the pregnant carrier related to the photograph printed
alongside. The court of appeals rejected all of the tabloid’s
arguments, holding that “[i]t may be. . .that Mrs. Mitchell does not
show a great deal of obvious injury, but. . . Nellie Mitchell's
experience could be likened to that of a person who had been dragged
slowly through a pile of untreated sewage. . . [and] few would doubt
that substantial damage had been inflicted by the one doing the
In a case against
Sources and notes
^ a b c FALSE LIGHT Archived February 27, 2008, at the Wayback
Machine. by Professor Edward C. Martin – Cumberland School of Law,
^ When Truth Is No Defense[permanent dead link]
^ a b Tannenbaum, Wendy (Fall 2002). "A recent decision calls 'false
light' outdated". Libel & Privacy. 26 (4): 22. Retrieved November
^ 786 F. Supp. 791, 792 (D. Ark. 1992).
^ Braun v. Flynt, 726 F.2d 245, 247 (5th Cir. 1984).
^ Id. at 256.
^ Id. at 248.
^ a b Id. at 258.
^ Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy (1997). The Right to Privacy.
New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-41986-1. CS1 maint: Uses
authors parameter (link)
^ "Braun v. Flynt". Retrieved 18 July 2011.
^ 21 N.Y.2d 124 (1967).
^ "Spahn v. Messner (NY Court of Appeals)". Scholar.google.com.
The dictionary definition of false light at Wiktionary
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