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Defamation vs. False Light: What Is the Difference?

In today's content-rich and digital world, public figures and people involved in newsworthy events aren't the only ones at risk of harm related to reputation. 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.

If you suspect that false or misleading information about you has been shared or publicly distributed in any other way, then you may have a claim under defamation laws. On the other hand, if you can't make a claim related to defamation, you may still have a cause of action under laws related to what is referred to as being cast in a "false light."

It's important that you understand the differences between the two "reputational harm" causes of action, defamation vs. false light. This will give you a better understanding of what you need to prove, as well as the strengths and scope of your claim.

Read on to learn more about these two claim types.

Defamation and False Light: Comparing the Elements

Defamation and false light are similar causes of action that relate to disclosures of false or misleading information. Because there's substantial overlap between the two causes of action, many states -- such as Colorado -- don't recognize false light as a separate cause of action.

When determining the strength and scope of your claim, you should first determine the applicable state law and whether you have access to a false light cause of action.

To start, let's take a look at the basic causes of action for both defamation and false light.

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 for the plaintiff's rights. The same is true if the plaintiff was not necessarily a public figure but was instead still involved in some newsworthy event or some other event that drew interest from the public.
  • The statement was not privileged information, such as any information shared between an attorney and a client or a doctor and a patient.

Defendants are generally placed at a significant advantage as compared to plaintiffs in defamation actions.

Truth is a complete defense against defamation, no matter how injurious the statement may have been. Essentially, a defendant can publicly make any statement about the plaintiff, no matter how reputationally damaging or embarrassing, so long as that statement is truthful. If a plaintiff cheated on their spouse, for example, then the plaintiff can't sue a defendant for having published that fact in a magazine or newspaper.

Defendants may also claim that their public statement was a matter of pure opinion, which would exempt them from the action. If that fails, they may seek to have the court recognize the plaintiff as a limited public figure. In this way, the higher reckless disregard standard kicks in. Many states, including California, have also instituted anti-SLAPP legislation that gives considerable discretion to superior courts to determine whether a defamation action should fail before the facts ever go to a jury trial.

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 of ordinary sensibilities.
  • 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.

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 who has not been accused of (or otherwise associated with) child molestation, the newspaper may be liable for false light. This is the case because including the photograph implies that the priest is involved in child molestation. In 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 because 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 statement. It does not need to cause injury directly. It may do so by implication alone.

The Differences Between Defamation and False Light

Defamation is meant to protect a person from injury to their reputation, while false light is meant to protect 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 be offensive or embarrassing. False light, on the other hand, demands that the supposed implication be offensive or embarrassing to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.
  • False light demands that the defendant has made the implication or misleading statement or disclosure with reckless disregard. This is a high standard. Defamation, on the other hand, only demands the reckless disregard standard if the plaintiff is a public figure or limited public figure.
  • Truth is a complete defense to defamation. In a different way, false light is affected by the truth defense. 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, then 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. 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.

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