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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.