False Light Privacy Invasion

False Light Privacy Invasion is a legal term that refers to a tort concerning privacy that is similar to the tort of defamation. In common law a tort is a form of damage that involves a breach of a civil duty. If a media entity prints something where the information is false, then a tort of defamation is likely to have occurred. However, if the facts are not technically false but are rather misleading then a tort of false light may well have occurred.

All defamations can be defined as false light privacy invasions. On the other hand not all false light privacy invasions can be defined as defamations. A false light privacy invasion differs from defamation as it takes away a person's control of their image or persona in a manner which may not be malicious or sinister, but is offensive to that person.

The differences between defamation, including slander and libel, and invasion of privacy or false light torts are very easily blurred. It can be most easily distilled in the following formula: defamation affects one's good name or reputation, while false light torts normally involve as one's right to privacy or one's right to be left alone.

The true core of a false light privacy invasion tort is when a person's character, activity, beliefs or history have been majorly misrepresented in a way that places the damaged party in an subjectively false position before independent parties, such as the general public, to whom this information is communicated. In a false light privacy invasion plaintiffs claim that they are damaged by false statements that place them in a false, though not necessarily damaging, light that they find offensive.

By now it should be clear that false light privacy invasion is different to a case of defamation. However, in this area of law, having a clearly defined term and difference that is stated is not always sufficient. In courts there have been differences between what the courts have said and done and what the theory says should happen. Several cases that provide examples of the difficulty of separating false light from defamation are as follows:

In the case of Spahn vs Messner, the plaintiff was fictionalized in a children's work that depicted him as a war hero, which was a distortion of his actual career as a baseball pitcher. Although this misrepresentation only made his reputation better, and it could not be argued that it damaged him in any way, it removed his ability to be able to represent himself accurately to others.

The case of Moloney vs. Bay Comics Publishers involved a plaintiff who had assisted survivors from a small airplane which had crashed into New York City's Empire State Building. The plaintiff was upset that Bay Comics had presented him in comic-style pictures as a hero, although this was not the way he perceived himself. This perception had negative consequences, including with the Coast Guard in which he served. He was investigated to ascertain whether he had violated Coast Guard regulations by selling the rights to the publication, and was refused a job after leaving the Coast Guard on the grounds that he had become a comic book character. As in Spahn, the reputation was enhanced, not injured, but the consequences of this enhancement were clearly negative compared to Spahn.

In Binns v. Vitagraph, the plaintiff succeeded with a claim that a film production firm had violated his privacy by including his picture in films about the rescue of passengers from a wrecked ship. The plaintiff's wireless message had brought aid that saved the ship's passengers. This was the first time wireless had been used in this way. The plaintiff was made out to be the hero of the event although again the plaintiff's modesty prevented him from wanting to claim heroism. The plaintiff's reputation was enhanced, so clearly this was not a case of defamation. The facts fit the false light pattern: an exaggerated, non-defamatory, and false public depiction of the plaintiff.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

False Light Privacy
McLean, Deckle.
Communications and the Law, Vol. 19, No. 1, March 1997
Essential Principles of Communications Law
Donald E. Lively.
Praeger, 1992
Librarian’s tip: "False Light Privacy" p. 90
False Light: A New Weapon in the SLAPP Arsenal?
Barr, Lisa J.
Communications and the Law, Vol. 24, No. 2, June 2002
Use of False Light: A Barometer of News Media Performance?
Barr, Lisa J.
Communications and the Law, Vol. 24, No. 1, March 2002
Advertising and Public Relations Law
Roy L. Moore; Ronald T. Farrar; Erik L. Collins.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "False Light Invasions of Privacy"
The Supreme Court and the Mass Media: Selected Cases, Summaries, and Analyses
Douglas S. Campbell.
Praeger Publishers, 1990
Librarian’s tip: "Cases Related to Privacy" p. 153
Digital Manipulation as New Form of Evidence of Actual Malice in Libel and False Light Cases
Kim, Gyong Ho; Paddon, Anna R.
Communications and the Law, Vol. 21, No. 3, September 1999
Vindication for "Dateline NBC"
Olmstead, Kathryn J.
American Journalism Review, Vol. 22, No. 5, June 2000
The Commercial Appropriation of Personality
Huw Beverley-Smith.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Defamation and 'False Light' Privacy" begins on p. 261
Mass Communication Law and Ethics
Roy L. Moore.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "False Light" begins on p. 432
More Speech, Not Less: Communications Law in the Information Age
Mark Sableman.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of false light begins on p. 124
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