Invasion of Privacy–False Light
The law provides everyone with some basic rights to privacy. Privacy is the general right to be left alone and free from unwanted publicity. Unreasonable invasion of one’s privacy causes harm.
There are four well-established lawsuits for invasion of privacy: appropriation; false light; intrusion; and disclosure. In most states, the rights under these lawsuits are personal. Most end when a person dies, and they do not apply to corporations and other legal entities.
This article discusses the invasion of privacy lawsuit known as false light.
Attributing Views To You That You Do Not Have
People have a general right to not have their views publicly distorted. When the views are attributed to a person that the person does not have, the person has been placed in a false light. Most states recognize a lawsuit for false light, which is unreasonably attributing to a person objectionable views that the person does not have. The classic example of appropriation is someone circulating a bad writing and falsely claiming that it was written by you.
The Elements of False Light
The basic elements of false light are (1) unreasonably, either intentionally or negligently, (2) attributing to a person objectionable views that the person does not hold. As required by the United States Supreme Court in the case Time, Inc. v. Hill, a plaintiff who is a public official or public figure must also prove that the defendant acted with actual malice (i.e., a known or reckless disregard of the truth). Special damages and punitive damages, if any, must also be proven.
Defenses to Appropriation
The defendant in an appropriation lawsuit can challenge the plaintiff’s proof of the basic elements of false light. For example, the defendant may be able to show that the plaintiff did in fact have the views in question. A false light case can be hard to prove. If a person is a private person, there may be little evidence of his or her views. On the other hand, if a person is a public official or public figure, the defendant need only show that he or she did not act with actual malice.
A common defense to false light is consent, express or implied. Note that unlike a defamation lawsuit, the truth of the statements themselves is not a defense. Because the interest being protected by a false light lawsuit is a person’s right to have his or her views not distorted, not his or her reputation, truth is irrelevant.