The core difference between defamation and false light is that defamation harms the victim’s reputation, while false light invades the victim’s privacy. There are many implications that come from this difference. For example, a defamatory statement only has to be made to one other person, while false light requires the disclosure to be to the wider public.
How is defamation different from a false light claim?
The main difference between a defamation claim and a claim for false light is that defamation causes reputational harm, while a disclosure in false light invades the victim’s privacy and caused emotional distress.
This difference is very nuanced. It does not sound like the two are different, at all. In fact, many states do not treat them as separate claims. However, the implications of this difference are significant. It changes:
- how widespread the disclosure has to be,
- whether it matters that the victim is a public or a private person,
- whether the defendant made the statement with reckless disregard for the truth,
- whether the statement at issue has to be offensive or embarrassing, and
- how truth can be used as a legal defense to the lawsuit.
To be defamation, the statement only has to be made to a single other person. To be false light, it has to be a public disclosure of private facts.
What amounts to a “public disclosure” is vague. Under common law, it is a public disclosure if the offending statement was made to the public in general or to a large number of people.1
However, the number of people who must have seen or heard the statement is only one factor that courts seem to consider. In California, for example, one court found that a true statement published in a country club newsletter was not sufficiently public.2
Another court found that a letter sent to 1,000 men was sufficiently public.3 The differences between these 2 cases, though, are striking: The country club’s newsletter was only sent to members, not to the general public, while the letter was purportedly from a semi-famous actress, asked the 1,000 recipients to meet her at a time and place, and was sent without the actress’ knowledge.
Therefore, the extent of the publicity that the disclosure needs in order to support a claim for false light will depend on the circumstances of the case. For defamation, though, the libelous statement only has to be made to a single other person.
Status of victim as a public or a private figure
In defamation, it matters whether the victim is a public figure or a private one. In false light claims, it does not matter.
The status of the victim determines whether a defamatory statement must have been made with actual malice or not. Public figures have to show actual malice in order to succeed in a defamation claim.4 Private figures do not have to show actual malice, though they may still need to show that the defendant was not merely negligent.
False light claims do not differentiate between public and private figures.
Reckless disregard for the truth
The actual malice standard that is required for some defamation cases can be satisfied by showing that the defendant made the defamatory statement knowing that the statement was a falsehood, or with reckless disregard for the truth. This standard is only used when the victim was a public figure. When the defamed party was a private figure, he or she only has to show that the statement was negligent.
The actual malice standard is always used in false light claims, regardless of whether the victim was a public figure or a private individual. Victims always have to show that the defendant knew the statement would put the victim in a false light, or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.5
A statement has to be offensive to a reasonable person to support a false light claim. It does not have to be offensive, at all, to support a defamation lawsuit.
Truth as a defense
Truth is always a defense to a defamation allegation. No matter how badly the statements damage the victim’s reputation, if they were true, then the person making them is not liable for libel or slander.
In a false light action, truth may only be a defense if both the statement and its implications are true. This means that true facts that insinuate something false can lead to a false claim lawsuit.6
What is defamation?
Defamation is a statement that is harmful to someone’s reputation. If the statement is made verbally, it is slander. If it is made in writing, it is libel.
In California, plaintiffs who are not public figures have to prove the following elements to win a defamation claim involving matters of public concern:
- the defendant made the statement to a third party,
- the third party reasonably understood that the statement was about the victim,
- the third party reasonably understood the meaning of the statement,
- they were false statements, and
- the defendant failed to use reasonable care to determine the truth or falsity of the statements.7
If the victim was a public figure, he or she also has to show, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant knew the statements were false, or had serious doubts about their veracity.8
What is a false light invasion of privacy?
The tort of false light is an invasion of privacy claim where someone publishes offensive information that is either false, or that implies something false. The name comes from the embarrassment that the victim suffers: The offensive information exposes them to the public in a false light.
In California, personal injury plaintiffs pursuing a false light lawsuit have to show that:
- the defendant publicly disclosed information or material that showed the victim in a false light,
- the false light created by the disclosure would be highly offensive to a reasonable person in the victim’s position,
- there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant:
- knew the disclosure would create a false impression about the victim,
- acted with a reckless disregard for the truth, or
- was negligent in determining the truth of the information or whether a false impression would be created by its disclosure;
- the victim was harmed or sustained harm to his or her property, business, occupation, or profession, and
- the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing that harm.9
Many jurisdictions, like Colorado, do not have a distinct cause of action for a false light invasion of privacy tort. There, the state supreme court stopped recognizing false light cases because of their similarities with defamation law, as well as their potential to chill the Freedom of the Press and Free Speech rights under the First Amendment.10
- Santiesteban v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 306 F.2d 9 (5th Cir. 1962).
- Warfield v. Peninsula Golf & Country Club, 214 Cal.App.3d 646 (1989).
- Kerby v. Hal Roach Studios, 53 Cal.App.2d 207 (1942).
- The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
- Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374 (1967).
- Godbehere v. Phoenix News Inc., 162 Ariz. 335 (1989).
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) No. 1702.
- CACI No. 1700.
- CACI No. 1802.
- Denver Publishing Company v. Bueno, 54 P.3d 893 (2002).