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False light is a legal term that refers to 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 privacy from publicity which puts them in a false light to the public; which 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 protect a plaintiff's reputation as is the case with the tort of defamation[1] and in being about the impression created rather than being about true or false. 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.[1]

"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."[2]

"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:

  1. A publication by the Defendant about the Plaintiff;
  2. made with actual malice (very similar to that type required by New York Times v. Sullivan in "Defamation" cases);
  3. which places the Plaintiff in a false light; AND
  4. that would be highly offensive (i.e., embarrassing to reasonable persons).[1]

Some U.S. state courts have ruled that false light lawsuits must be rewritten as defamation lawsuits in their states because their state's defamation law "covers the same ground" with respect to what those courts have ruled should be covered in avoiding a chilling effect on the media. But, "most states do allow false light claims to be brought, even where a defamation claim would suffice."[3]


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.” 786 F. Supp. 791, 792 (D. Ark. 1992). The woman (not in fact 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, and 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 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 dragging.”

In the case against Playgirl magazine, actor Jose Solano Jr. won a false light claim because of the placement of headlines around his cover photo. The court said the gist of the magazine's cover—which featured headlines like "12 Sizzling Centerfolds Ready to Score With You" and "TV Guys. Primetime's Sexy Young Stars Exposed" -- put Solano in a false light by suggesting he might be pictured nude inside the magazine, even though the cover could not have given rise to a defamation claim."[3]

The case was then later reversed due to the fact that he was a limited public figure and that the magazine was 'newsworthy.'

In another case, an entertainer who performed at an amusement park with a swimming pig brought defamation and false light claims based on the publication of her photo in Chic magazine. The photo was a true representation of the woman and her pig, so it could not give rise to a defamation claim. But her false light claim succeeded because the essence of the piece, which made the entertainer's act seem sexual and deviant, was held to be false.[3]

In the 1967 case Time, Inc. v. Hill,[4] the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated a false light privacy judgment for the Hill family in the absence of proof of actual malice. Justice William Brennan, speaking for a five-member majority of the Court, wrote that a showing of innocent or negligent false reportage is insufficient to collect damages for a false light claim. Justice John Marshall Harlan II, writing in dissent, opined that the actual malice standard, as set forth by the Court three years earlier in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, was too stringent for false light privacy cases.

See also

Sources and notes

  1. ^ a b c FALSE LIGHT by Professor Edward C. Martin - Cumberland School of Law, Samford University
  2. ^ When Truth Is No Defense
  3. ^ a b c The News Media & The Law article "A recent decision calls false light outdated" by Wendy Tannenbaum - published Fall 2002 (Vol. 26, No. 4), Page 22. Libel & Privacy
  4. ^ 385 U.S. 374 (1967)


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