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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.