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False Light

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Publication Putting Plaintiff in a False Light:
A publication which gives people a false impression of the plaintiff.

In order to prove a prima facie case of placing the plaintiff in a false light, the plaintiff must prove that defendant published something that gave people the wrong impression about him.

While this tort looks similar to appropriation of plaintiff’s name or likeness, it is slightly different in that placing the plaintiff in false light does not involve the commercial use of the plaintiff’s name or likeness, whereas, in the tort of appropriating plaintiff’s name or likeness, the purpose is for commercial use.

In order for the cause of action to be viable, the plaintiff must prove that the publication that put him in a false light was distributed to a reasonable number of people and, that the false light that he was put in is highly offensive to a reasonable person. See Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., 419 U.S. 245 (1974). For example:

A photographer for the New York Times takes a picture of Jeff wearing an “American Paralegal Institute” sweatshirt. The picture appears in the newspaper with a caption that reads “How Young Law Students Relax after a Long Day in the Classroom”. In the background of the picture, but clearly visible, are several adult bookstores and peep shows. In this situation, Jeff would have an action for placing him in a false light because, in putting the caption and the background of the picture together, the implication is that Jeff frequents adult entertainment establishments in his free time. Please note that if this photograph were to adversely effect Jeff’s reputation, he would have a cause of action for defamation as well.

Please note that newsworthy statements made by the media that put the plaintiff in a false light are not actionable unless the media knowingly and recklessly placed plaintiff in a false light. See Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374 (1967). For example:

Colin dresses in a green suit, puts on a green hat with pictures of four-leaf clovers on it, and attends the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade where he is photographed holding two small Irish flags. The picture appears in a local newspaper with the caption “Irish eyes a’ smiling at this years St. Patrick’s Day parade”. Colin, who is not Irish, sues the newspaper for false light. Such an action will not be viable because the newspaper did not knowingly or recklessly place plaintiff in a false light. 

Given what Colin was wearing, what he was holding and where he was at the time the picture was taken, it was safe to assume that Colin was Irish and, certainly, the paper did not intentionally place Colin in a false light. In addition, the fact that Colin himself gave the impression that he was Irish will bar him from recovering.

As with the other invasion of privacy torts, plaintiff must prove causation in order to recover.

As far as damages are concerned, the plaintiff may recover for damages to his reputation, and for any emotional stress he has suffered, and for any pecuniary (monetary) damages.