State Law: False Light

State laws vary with regard to false light suits. Consult the state sections listed below to determine whether your state recognizes false light and, if so, how it works in practice. (Note that the guide does not include every state at this time.)

Arizona: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Arizona. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

Arizona recognizes the tort of “false light” as one of the four “invasion of privacy” torts. Plaintiffs can sue for false light when offensive and false information or innuendo about them is spread publicly. The specific elements a plaintiff must prove are listed below under Elements of a False Light Claim.

While false light in Arizona is similar to defamation, there are several differences.

  • First, statements need to be publicized more widely for false light than defamation. See Hart v. Seven Resorts, Inc., 947 P.2d 846, 854 (1997) (“‘Publicity’ as it is used [for false light] differs from ‘publication’ [for defamation purposes].”) (second alteration in original) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652D).
  • Second, defamation requires harm to reputation or other social consequences, while false light does not. Godbehere v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 783 P.2d 781, 787 (1989) (“Privacy, [unlike defamation], does not protect reputation but protects mental and emotional interests. . . . Under this theory, a plaintiff may recover even in the absence of reputational damage... .”)
  • Third, material must be offensive for false light, id. at 786, while it need not be for defamation.
  • Fourth, false light in Arizona protects against not only false statements, but also false implications and innuendo. Id. at 787.

Elements of a False Light Claim

Arizona has adopted the formulation of the tort of false light found in Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E. Godbehere, 783 P.2d at 786‑87. To establish a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant (1) made statements about the plaintiff (2) to the public that are (3) “highly offensive to a reasonable person” and (4) the defendant “had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the [plaintiff] would be placed.” Hart, 947 P.2d at 854. Each of these requirements is described in greater detail below.

Identification of Plaintiff

CMLP is not aware of any Arizona case law discussing how specifically a statement must identify the plaintiff to create an actionable claim for false light.

Public Disclosure

False light, as well as the other invasion of privacy torts recognized in Arizona “‘depends upon publicity given to the private life of the individual.’” Hart, 947 P.2d at 854 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652D). To make out a claim for false light, a plaintiff must show that “‘the matter is made public, by communicating it to the public at large, or to so many persons that the matter must be regarded substantially certain to become public knowledge.’” Id., (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652D). The form of communication (oral, written, etc.) does not matter as long as the communication “‘reaches, or is sure to reach, the public.’” Id. (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652D).

To prove publicity, the plaintiff must provide more than an “unsubstantiated allegation” that information has been communicated publicly. Id. at 855. In Hart, the court provided a list of illustrative examples of “the kinds of evidence” a plaintiff might use to help prove publication, including “affidavits from persons in the community who had heard the rumors; affidavits by [the plaintiff] denying that they discussed [the information], thereby starting the rumors themselves; or any direct allegation of actual publication (e.g. via newspaper, public announcement, etc.) by [the defendant].” Id. at 855 n.18.

Offensiveness

The statement must be “highly offensive to a reasonable person.” Godbehere, 783 P.2d at 786 (citing Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374 (1967); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E); Hart, 947 P.2d at 854. “Thus, the plaintiff’s subjective threshold of sensibility is not the measure, and ‘trivial indignities’ are not actionable.”  Godbehere, 783 at 786. In other words, it is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense.

Falsehood

To prove false light, a plaintiff must show “‘a major misrepresentation of [the plaintiff’s] character, history, activities or beliefs,’ not merely minor or unimportant inaccuracies.” Godbehere, 783 P.2d at 787 (alteration in original) (quoting Restatement § 652E (Second) of Torts cmmt c).

“A false light cause of action may arise when something untrue has been published about an individual, or when the publication of true information creates a false implication about the individual.” Id. (internal citation omitted). Thus, false light protects against not only outright falsehoods, but also against false innuendo, and “[a] plaintiff may bring a false light invasion of privacy action . . . even though the actual facts stated are true.” Id.

As an example of this type of statement, the court in Godbehere cited Douglass v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 769 F.2d 1128 (7th Cir. 1985), in which the plaintiff successfully sued for false light invasion of privacy when photographs for which she had posed nude and consented to publication in Playboy magazine were actually published in Hustler magazine, “a publication of much lower standing in the journalistic community.” Id. at 787 n.2.

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. In Arizona, the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted “with knowledge of the falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.” Godbehere, 162 Ariz. at 786, 788. This language echoes the actual malice standard in public figure defamation cases.

While the Supreme Court of Arizona has specified that the “actual malice” standard applies to false light claims made by public figures, id. at 788‑89, it has left open the question of whether a non‑public figure may recover under a false light claim where he shows negligence but not actual malice, id. at 789 n.6.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses. For instance, opinions are constitutionally protected; a false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. There is also an important common law protection that may be protect you when you comment on issues of public concern:

Issues of Public Concern Related to Public Officials

The Supreme Court of Arizona has specified that “there can be no false light invasion of privacy action for matters involving official acts or duties of public officers” because of public officials’ more limited privacy rights. Godbehere, 783 P.2d at 789. As a result, “a plaintiff cannot sue for false light invasion of privacy if he or she is a public official and the publication relates to performance of his or her public life or duties.” Id. Unlike in some other states, Arizona has not limited this protection to only media defendants.

California: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to California. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

California recognizes "false light" claims. A person can sue for false light when something highly offensive is implied to be true about them that is actually false.

False light in California is different from defamation. While defamation concerns statements that are actually false, false light is about false implications. The difference between defamation and false light can be illustrated by Gill v. Curtis Publ'g Co., 239 P.2d 630 (Cal. 1952), the case that established false light in California. In Gill, the "Ladies Home Journal" published an article criticizing "love at first sight" as being based on nothing more than sexual attraction. The author said such love was "wrong" and would lead to divorce. The article featured a photo of a couple, with the caption, "[p]ublicized as glamorous, desirable, 'love at first sight' is a bad risk." The couple, who did not know the photo had been taken, sued. Although the journal did not actually say the couple was engaged in the "wrong" kind of love, the implication was clearly there. The couple won by proving the magazine created a false impression of them.

Elements of a False Light Claim

Falsehood

First, in order to prove a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant implied something false. For instance, in Gill, discussed above, the photograph created the false impression that the couple was behaving wrongly in love. Similarly, in Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., 292 F.3d 1078 (9th Cir. 2002), the court found that having an actor's photo on the cover of Playgirl magazine, in combination with the magazine's headlines, could create the false impression that nude photos of the actor appeared inside.

On the other hand, when there is no false implication of fact, the claim will not succeed. True statements are not actionable. Moreover, when the context shows that the writer is using "rhetorical hyperbole" and "imaginative expression" that "cannot be read to imply the assertion of an objective fact," the plaintiff's claim will fail. See Partington v. Bugliosi, 56 F.3d 1147, 1157 (9th Cir. 1995).

It is important to distinguish the types of falsehoods appropriate for a false light claim versus a defamation claim. As discussed above, defamation concerns false statements of fact, while false light concerns false implications. Plaintiffs generally cannot sue for both at the same time about the same statement. When a plaintiff sues for both defamation and false light, and the suit basically concerns a false statement of fact, the court will dismiss the false light claim as superfluous. See, e.g., McClatchy Newspapers, Inc. v. Superior Court, 189 Cal. App. 3d 961, 13 Media L. Rep. 2281 (Cal. Ct. App. 1987); see also "Single Publilcation Rule," Cal. Civil. Code. § 3425.3 (prohibiting more than one cause of action concerning a false statement for the same publication).

Offensiveness

For the plaintiff to win, the statement must do more than create a false impression. The false impression that is created must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Fellow v. Nat'l Enquirer, Inc., 32 Cal. 3d 234, 238, 13 Media L. Rep. 1305 (Cal. 1986) (quoting Restatement 2d of Torts § 652E). In other words, it is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense.

Identification of Plaintiff

The falsehood in question must sufficiently identify the plaintiff. California courts generally do not require the plaintiff to be identified by name. For instance, cases such as Gill, discussed above, concern photographs of plaintiffs.

Public Disclosure

A plaintiff must show that the defendant publicly disclosed the falsehood concerning them. While this basic requirement is clear, its application is not -- courts go back and forth on how many people must receive the information for it to be "publicly disclosed." It is safe to say that publishing on the Internet for the whole world to see is public disclosure, and it probably safe to say that privately telling one person is not public disclosure; but it is hard to define the requirement any further.

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the false implication occurred due to the defendant's fault.  If the plaintiff is a public figure, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." See Readers's Digest Ass'n v. Superior Court, 37 Cal. 3d 244, 265 (Cal. 1984); Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., 292 F.3d 1078 (9th Cir. 2002). Although the California Supreme Court has not decided the level of fault plaintiffs who are not public figures must show, lower California courts indicate that plaintiffs must show that defendants acted "negligently." See, e.g., M.G. v. Time Warner, Inc., 89 Cal. App. 4th 623, 636 (Cal. Ct. App. 2001). For more information on possible levels of fault in claims for published falsehoods, see the section on Actual Malice and Negligence in this guide.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case.  See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.

Opinion

A false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Opinions are constitutionally protected, and you will not be held liable under a false light claim for a negative opinion. Of course, distinguishing facts and opinions can be difficult. For more information on how courts distinguish between facts and opinions, see the section on Opinion and Fair Comment Privileges, which discusses the issue in the context of defamation.

Parody

You will not be held liable for casting a plaintiff in a false light if the false statement of fact in question is in a context the average reader would understand is a parody. See San Francisco Bay Guardian, Inc. v. Superior Court, 17 Cal. App. 4th 655, 21 Media L. Rep. 1791 (1993). In San Francisco Bay Guardian, the court held that a newspaper would not be held liable for statements in its April Fool's Day section suggesting that a landlord gave his tenants electroshock therapy because a reasonable reader would understand them as parody.

District of Columbia: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to the District of Columbia. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

The District of Columbia recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for false light when a false and offensive statement is made about them to the public and causes them distress. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."

False light in the District of Columbia overlaps significantly with Defamation. In D.C., defamation and false light both protect against the same wrongs -- offensive false statements. The key difference between defamation and false light is that they protect against different harms flowing from such statements. "The false light . . . action differs from an action for defamation because a defamation tort redresses damage to reputation while a false light privacy tort redresses mental distress from having been exposed to public view." White v. Fraternal Order of Police, 909 F.2d 512, 518 (D.C. Cir. 1990). In other words, defamation protects a person's public reputation, while false light protects a person's internal mental tranquility.

Despite this difference in protected interests, "[t]here is a great deal of overlap between the causes of action for defamation and false light." Moldea v. New York Times Co.,15 F.3d 1137, 1151 (D.C. Cir. 1994). As the Moldea court noted, "[p]ublicity that is actionable in a false light claim generally will be actionable in defamation as well." Id. Courts often treat the two as analytically similar.

Because false light and defamation overlap so greatly, plaintiffs may only recover on one or the other theory concerning the same publication. Modea, 15 F.3d at 1151. The defenses, privileges, and burdens of proof that protect defendants in defamation cases are equally applicable to false light cases.

Because of the overlap between defamation and false light, you should review the section on District of Columbia Defamation Law as well.

Elements of a False Light Claim

If a plaintiff files a false light claim, he or she must show that there was

  1. public disclosure of
  2. a false statement, representation, or imputation
  3. about the plaintiff that
  4. would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

See Klayman v. Segal, 783 A.2d 607, 613 (D.C. 2002). Moreover, the plaintiff must show that the defendant is at fault.

The recent case of Benz v. Washington Newspaper Publ'g Co., 34 Media L. Rep. 2368 (D.D.C. 2006), illustrates how false light works in DC. In that case, a producer from CNN claimed that the Washington Enquirer had stated that she had been "been linked romantically with power players" and that she had "hooked up" with a "porn king." Id. at n.5. The court found that the newspaper's statements were "highly offensive."

Falsehood

First, in order to prove a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that something false was stated. The falsehood can be implied or directly stated. See White v. Fraternal Order of Police, 909 F.2d 512, 523 (D.C. Cir. 1990).

Offensiveness

For the plaintiff to win, the statement must do more than state a false fact. The false fact stated must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." S. Air Transp., Inc. v. ABC,, 670 F. Suppp. 2d. 38, 42 (D.D.C. 1987) (quoting Restatement 2d of Torts § 652E). It is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense.

Identification of Plaintiff

The falsehood in question must identify the plaintiff somehow. The plaintiff does not need to be named, as long as he or she can be identified. See Lohrenz v. Donnelly, 223 F. Supp. 2d 25, 47-48 (D.D.C. 2002).

Public Disclosure

While District of Columbia courts require the false statement to be disclosed to the public, they have not ruled on what exactly that means. It is safe to say that publishing on the Internet for the whole world to see is public disclosure.

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. If the defendant is a public figure, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." See White v. Fraternal Order of Police, 909 F.2d 512, 524-25 (D.C. Cir. 1990)). At least one D.C. court has held that plaintiffs who are not public figures must merely show that defendants acted "negligently." See Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., 512 F. Supp. 1285, 1288 (D.D.C. 1981). For more information on possible levels of fault, see the Actual Malice and Negligence section of this guide.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.

No Suits by Corporations

False light in the District of Columbia compensates the plaintiff for mental distress and anguish. One federal district court in D.C. held that because corporations cannot be offended, they cannot sue for false light. See S. Air Transp., Inc. v. ABC, 670 F. Supp. 38, 42 (D.D.C. 1987).

Opinion

A false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Opinions are constitutionally protected, and you will not be held liable under a false light claim for an opinion that offends others. Of course, distinguishing facts and opinions can be difficult. For more information on how courts distinguish between facts and opinions, see Opinion and Fair Comment Privileges, which discusses the issue in the context of defamation.

Fair Comment

One court in D.C. has held that the fair comment privilege, which applies to defamation claims, also protects defendants in false light claims. In Lane v. Random House, Inc., 985 F. Supp. 141, 150 (D.D.C. 1995), the court described the privilege as protecting a writer when he offers his views on a situation where "the reader is aware of the factual foundation for" the author's statement. In such a situation, the reader can "judge independently whether the comment is reasonable." Id. The court noted that "the fair comment privilege can be invoked even if the underlying facts are not included with the comment." Id.

Florida: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Florida. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

Florida false light law is in flux. While some Florida appellate courts have recognized false light claims, the Florida Supreme Court has not ruled on whether the tort applies in Florida. It has indicated, however, that an invasion of privacy action may be used to remedy what it described as “false light in the public eye--publication of facts which place a person in a false light even though the facts themselves may not be defamatory.”  See Agency for Health Care Admin. v. Associated Indus. of Fla., Inc., 678 So.2d 1239, 1252 (Fla. 1996).

On March 6, 2008, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument in the appeal of Gannett Co. v. Anderson, 947 So.2d 1. (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2006). Anderson claimed that a Gannett news article, while factually true, raised the false implication that he had murdered his wife with a 12-gauge shotgun because the article waited two sentences to mention that the shooting had been declared accidental. Gannett, 947 So.2d at 3. The court’s decision in that case is expected to resolve whether false light invasion of privacy is distinct from defamation in Florida.

Elements of a False Light Claim

Florida appellate courts that have recognized false light have applied the elements discussed in the general False Light section, with the following exceptions and clarifications:

Offensiveness

The statement must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person" to constitute false light invasion of privacy.  See See Straub v. Scarpa, 967 So.2d 437, 439 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2007) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E). For example, a letter to a homeowners’ association stating that the association budget “will no doubt contain very expensive items that have nothing to do with the operation of our community,” did not cast a director of the association in a false light because no reasonable person would be highly offended by the letter. Straub, 967 So.2d at 439.

Falsehood

Florida courts have not required falsehood.  For example, a Florida appellate court held that a man could claim false light invasion of privacy when a 60 Minutes television segment included interview footage of his former wife in the midst of “stories and pictures of women who had been abused, battered, and killed by their domestic partners.” See Heekin, 789 So.2d at 358. False light was an actionable claim because the broadcast created the impression that the plaintiff had battered his wife, even though the entire broadcast was truthful. According to the court, “neither knowledge of the falsity of the information nor reckless disregard for its truth is an element of a cause of action for false light invasion of privacy.” See Heekin, 789 So.2d at 359.

Fault

Florida courts have required that the “defendant must have acted either knowingly or in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized material and the false light in which it would be placed.” Lane v. MRA Holdings, LLC, 242 F.Supp.2d 1205, 1221 (M.D. Fla. 2002).

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case.  See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.

Georgia: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Georgia. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

Georgia recognizes the tort of "false light."  Plaintiffs can sue for false light when false information is spread about them that depicts them in an untruthful and highly offensive manner. The specific things a plaintiff must prove to establish false light are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."

False light in Georgia is essentially the same as defamation. No reported decision in Georgia state courts has found a defendant liable for false light without also finding the defendant liable for defamation. But see Maples v. Nat'l Enquirer, 763 F. Supp. 1137, 1141 (N.D. Ga. 1990) (finding that under Georgia law, statements can constitute false light without being defamatory). Georgia courts readily acknowledge that "[t]he interest protected [by the tort of false light] is clearly that of reputation, with the same overtones of mental distress as in defamation." Association Servs. v. Smith, 549 S.E.2d 454, 459 (Ga. Ct. App. 2001).

What the overlap means is that if you are sued for false light, you will probably also be sued for defamation (and vice versa). If you are concerned about false light, you should also review Georgia Defamation Law. Notably, "absolute privileges" that completely shield someone from liability for defamation also apply to claims for false light. See Rothstein v. L.F. Still & Co., 351 S.E.2d 513, 514-15 (Ga. Ct. App. 1986).

Elements of a False Light Claim

To establish a claim of false light in Georgia, a plaintiff must establish the existence of false publicity that depicts the plaintiff as something or someone which she is not. Next, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the false light in which she was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. Association Servs., 351 S.E.2d at 459.

Falsehood

First, in order to prove a false light claim, the plaintiff must show that he or she has been depicted as something he or she is not. In other words, the plaintiff must show that a falsehood about him or her was stated. True statements cannot form the basis of a lawsuit.

Offensiveness

For the plaintiff to win, the statement must do more than create a false impression. The false impression that is created must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Brewer v. Rogers, 439 S.E.2d 77, 83 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993) (quoting, via other cases, Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E). Georgia courts emphasize that they do not protect "hypersensitive" people. Thomason v. Times-Journal, Inc., 379 S.E.2d 551, 604 (1989) (finding no liability for the wrong name being accidentally used in an obituary).

Identification of Plaintiff

The falsehood in question must identify the plaintiff in particular. See, e.g., Collins v. Creative Loafing Savannah, Inc., 592 S.E.2d 170 (Ga. Ct. App. 2003).

Public Disclosure

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant publicly disclosed the falsehood concerning them. While this basic requirement is clear, it can be difficult to determine in particular situations whether telling a limited number of people in a certain setting constitutes "the public." It is safe to say that publishing on the Internet is public disclosure.

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant's fault caused the false implication. If the defendant is a public figure, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." See Brewer v. Rogers, 439 S.E.2d 77 (Ga. Ct. App. 1993). In most other situations, courts require the plaintiff merely to show that the defendant has been "negligent." For more information on possible levels of fault in claims for published falsehoods, see the section on Actual Malice and Negligence.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.

Opinion

A false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Opinions are constitutionally protected, and you will not be held liable under a false light claim for a negative opinion. See S&W Seafoods Co. v. Jacor Broad., 390 S.E.2d 228 (Ga. Ct. App. 1989). Of course, distinguishing facts and opinions can be difficult. For more information on how courts distinguish between facts and opinions, see Opinion and Fair Comment Privileges, which discusses the issue in the context of defamation.

Issues of Public Concern

Georgia courts have held that you cannot be sued for false light when you comment on an issue of public interest. See Wilson v. Thurman, 445 S.E.2d 811 (Ga. Ct. App. 1994) (finding that defendant police officers could not be held liable for false light after allegedly wrongfully investigating plaintiff for and charging him with sodomy (at that time a crime in Georgia) because the investigation focused on a matter of public concern).

Illinois: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Illinois. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

Illinois recognizes the tort of "false light." A person can sue for false light when a false and offensive statement is made about them to the public and causes them distress. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."

False light in Illinois overlaps significantly with defamation. In Illinois, defamation and false light both protect against the same wrongs -- offensive false statements. The key difference between defamation and false light is that they protect against different harms flowing from such statements. Defamation protects a person's public reputation, while false light protects a person's internal mental tranquility. See, e.g., Martin-Trigona v. Kupcinet, 1988 WL 93945 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 2, 1988).

False light in Illinois is broader than defamation. While everything that is defamation is also false light, false light reaches some things that defamation does not. See Lovgren v. Citizens First Nat'l Bank, 534 N.E.2d 987 (Ill. 1989). For instance, in Douglass v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 769 F.2d 1128 (7th Cir. 1985), a woman who had posed nude in Playboy sued Hustler because it published nude photos of her without her consent. The court stated that she had a right to sue for false light because Hustler insinuated that she was willing to appear nude in a "degrading setting."

Despite their overlap, a plaintiff can sue for both false light and defamation and potentially recover damages based on both claims. See, e.g., Lovgren, 534 N.E.2d at 987.

Elements of a False Light Claim

If a plaintiff files a false light claim, he or she must show that the defendant, acting with reckless disregard, placed him or her before the public in a false light in a manner that was highly offensive to a reasonable person. Lovgren, 534 N.E.2d at 989 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652(E)).

The case of Kolegas v. Heftel Broad. Corp., 607 N.E.2d 201 (Ill. 1992) provides a good illustration of how false light works in Illinois. In that case, a man alleged that he was working to promote a cartoon festival to benefit victims of neurofibromatosis (sometimes called 'Elephant Man's disease'). The man, whose wife and son suffered from the disease, appeared on a morning radio talk show to promote the festival. The DJs allegedly mocked the man's wife and child, implying (falsely) that they had abnormally large heads. The court held that based on his allegations, the man would be able to sue the radio station for false light.

Falsehood

First, in order to prove a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that something false was stated. You cannot be sued for "strong criticism" that is neither true nor false, but merely opinion. See, e.g., Raveling v. HarperCollins Publishers, 2004 WL 422538, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 10, 2004).

Offensiveness

For the plaintiff to win, the statement must do more than state a false fact. The false fact stated must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Lovgren, 534 N.E.2d at 989 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652(E) (1977)). It is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense. In the Kolegas case discussed above, the Illinois Supreme Court held that it would be reasonable to take offense at the allegation that a man's wife and child had abnormally large heads due to disease.

Identification of Plaintiff

The falsehood in question must identify the plaintiff somehow. The plaintiff does not need to be named, as long as he or she can be identified.

Public Disclosure

Illinois courts require the false statement to be disclosed to the public. See Lovgren, 534 N.E.2d at 989. For instance, in Lovgren the court found that an advertisement published in a local newspaper and handbills distributed in public were sufficient to constitute public disclosure. It is safe to say that publishing on the Internet for the whole world to see is public disclosure.

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. In Illinois, the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." See Lovgren, 432 N.E.2d at 989-991. For more information on possible levels of fault, see the Actual Malice and Negligence section of this guide.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.

Opinion

A false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Opinions are constitutionally protected, and you will not be held liable under a false light claim for an opinion that offends others. As mentioned in the Raveling case, you cannot be sued for "strong criticism" alone, unless false statements of fact are involved.

Of course, distinguishing facts and opinions can be difficult. For more information on how courts distinguish between facts and opinions, see Opinion and Fair Comment Privileges, which discusses the issue in the context of defamation.

Indiana: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Indiana. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

Indiana recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for false light in certain circumstances when false information about them has been spread to others. Because Indiana courts have not heard many cases raising false light, it is unclear when exactly someone can sue for being placed in a false light.

The case of Mavity v. Tyndall, 66 N.E.2d 755 (Ind. 1946) established false light in Indiana. In that case, the police took a mug shot of a man they were investigating for a crime. Charges against him were eventually dropped. However, the police maintained a photo of the man in their "rouges' gallery." The man sued and was able to have his photo removed because the police were casting him in a false light, implying that he was guilty of a crime.

Elements of a False Light Claim

The exact elements of a false light claim -- that is, what must be proven for a plaintiff to win -- have not been established in Indiana. See St. John v. Town of Ellettsville, 46 F. Supp. 2d 834, 851 (S.D. Ind. 1999).

Some limited aspects of what must be proven for a false light claim are clear. It is clear that the plaintiff must prove, at least, that you have said something false. See Near E. Side Cmty. Org. v. Hair, 555 N.E.2d 1324, 1335 (Ind. Ct. App. 1990). It is also clear that the false statement must identify the plaintiff. For instance, in Furno v. Citizens Ins. Co. of Am., 590 N.E.2d 1137 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992), a statement about chiropractors in general was held not to specifically identify a particular chiropractor who was upset by the statement.

Other states require plaintiffs suing for false light to prove that the statement was offensive and that the statement was disclosed to the public. It is not clear if Indiana will employ these requirements as well. Many states also require plaintiffs to prove that the defendant acted with "actual malice", at least for more famous or prominent public figures. Again, Indiana courts have not yet said the level of fault they will require.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.

For instance, opinions are constitutionally protected; a false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Other defenses may be available, but Indiana courts have not yet said what they are.

Massachusetts: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Massachusetts. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

Massachusetts courts do not recognize a claim for false light.  See ELM Medical Lab, Inc. v. RKO Gen., Inc., 532 N.E.2d 675, 681 (Mass. 1989); Jones v. Taibbi, 512 N.E.2d 260, 270 (Mass. 1987); Brown v. Hearst Corp., 54 F.3d 21, 27 (1st Cir. 1995).

Michigan: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Michigan. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

Michigan recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for false light when false information is spread about them that is humiliating. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."

False light in Michigan is similar to defamation. See, e.g., Morganroth v. Whitall, 411 N.W.2d 859, 863-64 (Mich. Ct. App. 1987). Both involve false statements that harm someone's public image. You can be sued for both defamation and false light for the same statements. However, a plaintiff can only obtain money for one or the other violation based on the same statements.

Elements of a False Light Claim

To win on a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant made statements that create unreasonable and highly objectionable publicity, attributing to the plaintiff characteristics, conduct or beliefs that are false, and that the defendant presented these statements to the public. Morganroth, 411 N.W.2d at 863-64. Each of these requirements is described in greater detail below:

Identification of Plaintiff

The statement in question must identify the plaintiff in particular. For example, criticizing all doctors will not allow any particular doctor to sue you.

Offensiveness

The statement must be "unreasonable and highly objectionable." Morganroth, 411 N.W.2d at 863-64 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E cmt. b). The material must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Early Detection Ctr., P.C. v. N.Y. Life Ins. Co., 403 N.W.2d 830, 835 (Mich. Ct. App. 1986) (quoting Restatement 2d of Torts § 652E). In other words, it is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense.

Falsehood

A plaintiff must show that something false has been said about him or her. The falsehood could misrepresent the plaintiff's characteristics, conduct, or beliefs. If the publication is true, then the plaintiff cannot win. For instance, in Morganroth v. Whitall, a writer for the Detroit News published a story about a hairdresser, describing how she used the unusual technique of blowtorching her client's hair. 411 N.W.2d at 859-61. She sued and lost because the facts in the story describing her hairdressing method were true.

Public Disclosure

For a plaintiff to win, he or she must show that the defendant made the statement in question to the public in general or to a large number of people. Reed v. Ponton, 166 N.W.2d 629, 630 (Mich. Ct. App. Mich. 1968). For instance, the plaintiff in one case complained that being fired cast her in a false light, but she lost because she did not claim that the reasons for her firing had been publicized by her employer. Ledl v. Quik Pik Food Stores, Inc., 249 N.W.2d 529 (Mich. Ct. App. 1994).

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. Michigan courts have not yet stated what level of fault is required. Most states require that the plaintiff prove the defendant acted with "actual malice", at least when the matter discussed is one of public concern or the plaintiff is an important or prominent public figure. Other states merely require that the defendant was "negligent" in publishing the statement in question. For more information on possible levels of fault, see the Actual Malice and Negligence section of this guide.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.

For instance, opinions are constitutionally protected; a false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Other defenses may be available, but Michigan courts have not yet said what they are.

New Jersey: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to New Jersey. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

New Jersey recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for "false light" when false information is spread about them that is false and offensive. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."

False light in New Jersey is similar to defamation. Both protect against the same wrongs -- offensive false statements. The key difference between defamation and false light is that they protect against different harms flowing from such statements. Defamation protects a person's public reputation, while false light protects a person's internal mental tranquility. See Romaine v. Kallinger, 537 A.2d 284, 290 (N.J. 1988)

Elements of a False Light Claim

To establish false light a plaintiff must prove that the defendant (1) made statements about the plaintiff (2) to the public that are (3) offensive and (4) false. Each of these requirements is described in greater detail below.

Identification of Plaintiff

The statement in question must identify the plaintiff in particular. For example, falsely criticizing all doctors will not allow any particular doctor to sue you.

Public Disclosure

For a plaintiff to win, he or she must show that the statement in question was publicized. While New Jersey courts require the false statement to be disclosed to the public, they have not ruled on what exactly that means. It is safe to say that publishing on the Internet for the whole world to see is public disclosure.

Offensiveness

The statement must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Romaine, 537 A.2d at 290 (quoting Restatement 2d of Torts § 652E). In other words, it is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense.. For instance, in Salek v. Passaic Collegiate School, a high school yearbook featured a photo in its "Funny Pages" of a male and a female teacher, with a caption (falsely) implying that the teachers were in a romantic relationship. 605 A.2d 276 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1992). One of the teachers sued, but the court held she could not recover because the yearbook caption was not offensive to a reasonable person.

Falsehood

In order to prove a false light claim, the plaintiff must show that the information was false. The falsehood could misrepresent the plaintiff's characteristics, conduct, or beliefs. If the publication is true, then the plaintiff cannot win.

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. If the defendant is a public figure, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." See Miele v. Rosenblum, 603 A.2d 43, 48 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1991). New Jersey courts have not decided what level of fault must be shown when the plaintiff is a private figure. They could either require the plaintiff to show that the defendant acted with actual malice, as for public figures, or could require the plaintiff to show that the defendant acted "negligently." For more information on possible levels of fault, see the Actual Malice and Negligence section of this guide.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses. For instance, opinions are constitutionally protected; a false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Other defenses may be available, but New Jersey courts have not yet said what they are.

New York: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to New York. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

The tort of "false light" is not recognized in New York; you cannot sue or be sued on such a claim. See, e.g., Costanza v. Seinfeld, 27 Media L. Rep. 2177 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1999), aff'd, 719 N.Y.S.2d 29 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001); Howell v. New York Post Co., 21 Media L. Rep. 1273 (N.Y. 1993).

 

North Carolina: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to North Carolina. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

The tort of "false light" is not recognized in North Carolina; you cannot sue or be sued on such a claim. See Renwick v. News & Observer, 312 S.E.2d 405 (N.C. 1984).

 

Ohio: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Ohio. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

Ohio's Supreme Court recently recognized the tort of "false light" in June 2007. In that case, Welling v. Weinfeld, 866 N.E.2d 1051 (Ohio 2007), a woman, Lauri Weinfeld, opened up a facility for outdoor banquets and weddings next to the home of Robert and Katherine Welling and their children. The neighbors came into conflict, and eventually Weinfeld found a window in her banquet facility broken. She put up a number of posters offering a $500 reward for information about the incident at the workplace of Mr. Welling and at the workplaces and schools of the family's children.

The Wellings and Lauri Weinfeld sued each other on various claims, including a claim by the Wellings that Weinfeld had through the posters cast them in a false light. In response, the Ohio Supreme Court announced for the first time that it would recognize the tort of false light: "In Ohio, one who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy if (a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed." Welling, 866 N.E.2d 1051 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E).

Elements of a False Light Claim

Parsing the court's decision in Welling, there are several things a plaintiff prove to establish false light:

  1. The defendant "gave publicity" to what he or she said about the plaintiff -- that is, the defendant communicated it to many people;
  2. The statement placed the plaintiff before the public in a "false light" -- that is, the defendant communicated something false;
  3. The statement was "highly offensive to a reasonable person"; and
  4. The defendant was at fault and knew or was reckless to the falsehood of the statement.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses.

For instance, opinions are constitutionally protected; a false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Other defenses may be available, but Ohio courts have not yet said what they are.

Pennsylvania: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Pennsylvania. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

Pennsylvania recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for false light when false information is spread about them that is offensive. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under Elements of a False Light Claim.

While false light in Pennsylvania is similar to defamation, there are several differences. First, statements need to be publicized more widely for false light than defamation. Second, defamation requires harm to reputation or other social consequences, while false light does not. Third, material must be offensive for false light, while it need not be for defamation.

Elements of a False Light Claim

To establish a false light claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant (1) made statements about the plaintiff (2) to the public that are (3) offensive and (4) false. Each of these requirements is described in greater detail below.

Identification of Plaintiff

The statement in question must identify the plaintiff in particular. For example, falsely criticizing all doctors will not allow any particular doctor to sue you.

Public Disclosure

For a plaintiff to win, he or she must show that the defendant made the statement to the public. The statement must be made either to the public at large (e.g., over the Internet) or to so great a number of people that it is "substantially certain to become . . . public knowledge." Curran v. Children's Serv. Ctr. Inc., 578 A.2d 8, 12 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652D comm. a). In Curran, the plaintiff lost because a "pink slip" he personally received was not sufficient public disclosure for a false light claim.

Offensiveness

The statement must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Larsen v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 543 A.2d 1181, 1188 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652E). In other words, it is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense. For instance, in Parano v. O'Connor, a court held that a plaintiff could not reasonably be offended by a newspaper article describing him as "uncooperative" and "adversarial." 641 A.2d 607, 608 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1994).

Falsehood

A plaintiff must show that something false has been said about him or her. The falsehood could misrepresent the plaintiff's characteristics, conduct, or beliefs. If the publication is true, then the plaintiff cannot win.

Fault

A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. In Pennsylvania, the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "knowledge of" a statement's falsity or acted with "reckless disregard" of its falsity. Santillo v. Reedel, 634 A.2d 264 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993). In other words, to be liable for false light, the defendant must make a statement he knows is false or must be very careless as to whether the statement is true of false.

Privileges and Defenses

If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses. For instance, opinions are constitutionally protected; a false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. There is also an important common law protection that may be protect you when you comment on issues of public concern:

Media Defendants

Under Pennsylvania law, the media is insulated from liability for false light when it reports on issues of public concern related to public officials. Neish v. Beaver Newspapers, Inc., 581 A.2d 619, 624-25 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990). Courts deem public officials as having "relinquish[ed] . . . insulation of scrutiny of [their] public affairs." Id.

What kinds of media are protected? Neish concerned a reporter for a traditional newspaper. If you work in a non-traditional media setting, an important question is whether the media protection described above will protect you. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania courts have not yet said how far the protection for media defendants will extend.

Texas: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Texas. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

The tort of "false light" is not recognized in Texas; you cannot sue or be sued on such a claim. See Cain v. Hearst Corp., 878 S.W.2d 577, 579-80 (Tex. 1994).

 

Virginia: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Virginia. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide. 

The tort of "false light" is not recognized in Virginia; you cannot sue or be sued on such a claim. See WJLA-TV v. Levin, 564 S.E.2d 383, 395 n.5 (Va. 2000). 

Washington: False Light

Note: This page covers information specific to Washington. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.

Washington courts have not explicitly recognized the tort of "false light." However, unlike several other states, Washington has not explicitly rejected the tort of false light either. In one case, the Washington Supreme Court appeared skeptical about whether allowing false light claims would be a good idea due to its similarity to defamation. See Eastwood v. Cascade Broad. Co., 722 P.2d 1295, 1298-99 (Wash. 1986).