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Defamation vs. False Light: What Is the Difference?

Public figures and people involved in newsworthy events aren't the only ones at risk of reputation-related harm. It's increasingly common for people to comment and share personal information and media.

Unfortunately, people may share information about you that's false or misleading. To address this problem, the law has evolved through court rulings (common law), as well as civil codes that different states have created. Now, private individuals can bring tort cases (civil wrong claims) for these kinds of legal issues. Over time, legal scholars have compiled these claims into a summary known as the Restatement (Second) of Torts.

If you suspect that false or misleading information about you has been shared or publicly distributed, you may have a claim under defamation laws. On the other hand, if you can't bring a defamation case, you may still have a cause of action for false light invasion of privacy claims.

It's important that you understand the differences between reputational tort law claims. This will give you a better understanding of the strengths and scope of your claim and the things you need to prove to win your case.

Defamation and False Light: Comparing the Elements

Defamation and false light are similar causes of action. They relate to disclosures of false or misleading information. Because there's great overlap between them, many states don't recognize the privacy tort of false light as a separate cause of action.

A plaintiff must first determine the strength and scope of their claim. This means figuring out the applicable law (jurisdiction) and whether you have access to a false light action in your state.

To start, let's take a look at the basic elements of both defamation and false light cases.

The Parts of a Defamation Claim

For a defamation claim, the plaintiff must prove the following:

  • The defendant made a statement about the plaintiff to another party
  • The statement caused injury to the plaintiff's reputation
  • The statement was false
  • If the plaintiff is a public figure, then the defendant must have made the false statement intentionally or with reckless disregard. This is known as the actual malice standard. The same can be true if the plaintiff was not necessarily a public figure. They could instead be involved in some newsworthy event or a matter of public concern
  • The statement was not privileged information, such as any information shared between an attorney and a client or a doctor and a patient

Defendants have significant advantages in defamation actions. This is because the Supreme Court has historically wanted to protect First Amendment rights to free speech. This includes the freedom of the press, which has been the subject of famous Supreme Court cases like New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and Time, Inc. v. Hill.

Truth is a complete defense against defamation, no matter how injurious the statement may have been. A person can make any truthful statement to the general public, no matter how reputationally damaging or embarrassing. For example, let's say a plaintiff cheated on their spouse. Such a plaintiff can't sue a defendant for having published that fact in a magazine or newspaper. Since the statement wouldn't be a falsity, the plaintiff will have to sue on other grounds (for instance, public disclosure of private facts), if applicable in their state.

Defendants may also claim that their public statement was a matter of pure opinion, which would exempt them from the action. But this would only work if a reasonable person would believe in good faith that the statement was meant as an opinion. If that fails, a defendant may seek to have the court recognize the plaintiff as a limited public figure. In this way, the higher actual malice standard kicks in.

Many states, including California, have also created anti-SLAPP (Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) laws. These are laws that give discretion to superior courts and courts of appeals to determine whether a defamation action should fail early in a lawsuit. To win on an anti-SLAPP claim, a defendant must prove that the plaintiff is merely trying to harm the defendant's First Amendment right to free speech. Usually, this will be in connection with something that concerns the public interest.

The Elements of a False Light Claim

In a false light claim, the plaintiff must prove the following elements:

  • The defendant published some information about the plaintiff
  • The information must portray the plaintiff in a false or misleading light
  • The information is highly offensive or embarrassing to a reasonable person
  • The defendant must have published the information with reckless disregard for its offensiveness

A false light claim is usually easier to bring than a defamation claim. This is because it involves allegations of false impressions (misleading impressions) rather than falsehoods (false statements).

Take, for example, a newspaper article about the issue of child molestation in certain churches. If the editor includes a photograph of an innocent priest, the newspaper may be liable for false light. This is because including the photograph creates a false impression that the priest is involved in molestation. In contrast, in defense to a defamation action, the newspaper would simply assert that no statement was actually made about the photographed priest and child molestation.

As you can probably tell, false light is a powerful cause of action for a plaintiff. It allows for a complete and total assessment of published information and the context in which such information is placed. A great deal of commentary that is likely to cause injury merely implies false statements. It does not need to cause injury directly: it may do so by implication alone.

The Differences Between Defamation and False Light

Defamation protects a person from injury to their reputation. False light protects a person from the offense or embarrassment that arises from a misleading or untrue implied statement. This distinction leads to practical differences affecting how the parties approach an issue of harm related to reputation. The practical differences are as follows:

A defamatory statement need only be made to one other person, but a false light disclosure must be made to a large enough group of people to be considered a 'public' disclosure.

Defamation is meant to protect reputation. A non-offensive statement about a person can harm their reputation. As such, defamation does not require that the statement is offensive or embarrassing. False light demands that the implication is offensive or embarrassing to a reasonable person.

False light requires that the defendant make a misleading statement with reckless disregard. This is a high standard. Defamation only demands the reckless disregard standard if the plaintiff is a public figure or a limited public figure.

Truth is a complete defense to defamation. In a different way, the truth defense affects false light. A defendant's true statement about a plaintiff may not be used to save the defendant if the implication is false. However, if the defendant's implication about the plaintiff is true, it will serve as a defense to a false light claim.

Involved in a Defamation or False Light Suit? Speak With a Lawyer

It's unpleasant to have your reputation challenged or questioned. It can also be traumatic under many circumstances, causing you great emotional distress. Whether you were defamed or cast in a false light -- or sued for such an act -- the outcome of the case will depend on the facts and how they are presented.

Consider speaking with a defamation lawyer to learn more. A defamation lawyer is a type of personal injury attorney who can help you file your case before its legal deadline. Each state has its own statute of limitations which determines the length of time you have to file your lawsuit, so act quickly.

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