False light is one of the four categories of "privacy torts" (the others being misappropriation, intrusion, and publication of private facts). While the nature of false light claims vary by state, they generally protect people from offensive and false facts stated about them to the public.
Not all states recognize claims for false light. In the states that do recognize a cause of action for false light, the specific requirements to raise a claim vary. Accordingly, you should review your individual state section listed at the bottom of this page for specific information about your state.
Generally speaking, a false light claim requires the following:
- The defendant published the information widely (i.e., not to just a single person, as in defamation);
- the publication identifies the plaintiff;
- it places the plaintiff in a "false light" that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person; and
- the defendant was at fault in publishing the information.
Distinguishing Between False Light and Defamation Claims
False light is similar to defamation. Most states that allow false light claims recognize some differences between false light and defamation, but there is still a great deal of overlap. In fact, a number of states do not recognize false light claims at all because of the overlap with defamation and because the vague nature of the tort might chill free speech.
Several states that allow both false light claims and defamation claims differentiate the two by saying they protect people against different harms flowing from false statements. These states indicate that defamation protects a person's public reputation while false light remedies the victim of a false statement for his or her emotional distress.
Some states, including California, hold that unlike defamation, false light concerns untrue implications rather than directly false statements. For instance, an article about sex offenders illustrated with a stock photograph of an individual who is not, in fact, a sex offender could give rise to a false light claim, even if the article and photo caption never make the explicit false statement (i.e., identifying the person in the photo as a sex offender) that would support a defamation claim.
Several states view false light as more narrow than defamation in certain respects -- that is, someone might be able to sue for defamation but not false light. For instance, false light requires broad publication to many people, while a defamatory statement could be made to only a few people. Some states note that false light requires the statement in question to be highly offensive to a reasonable person, while defamation does not require offensiveness so long as the statement actually harmed the reputation of the plaintiff. Finally, a number of states require the plaintiff to make a stronger showing that the defendant is at fault for false light than for defamation.
Avoiding False Light Claims
False light lawsuits often arise on the margins of stories, rather then at their core. For example, one might use a stock photo of a particular street to illustrate a story on local prostitution, and inadvertently create the impression that a person caught at random in the photo was frequenting the prostitutes. Be careful in what you use to illustrate your work.
Always be careful to check all your facts. Document the support you have for all of the information you publish. Statements that seem innocuous or harmless to you may offend a reader and could give rise to a lawsuit if they are also false.
When working online, be particularly mindful of the formatting of your site. Be sure that your website doesn't get reformatted in such a way as to create an unwitting juxtaposition of images and stories that creates a connotation that you had not intended.
While you can't reduce your risks entirely, we provide a number of helpful suggestions in the section on Practical Tips for Avoiding Liability Associated with Harms to Reputation.