A false light tort is an extremely contradictory area of privacy protection laws. On the one hand, it aims to protect people’s privacy in a manner similar to defamation tort but focuses on their dignity and mental well-being instead of their reputation. In doing so, it forces publishers to consider what implications their articles can have on the people that are mentioned. While this definitely has its benefits and has served to protect the interests of people who had actually been negatively affected by the published information, but couldn’t be shielded under defamation claims, it also brings a number of serious risks.
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First of all, while having a lot of overlap with defamation, it has a much smaller and subjective burden of proof, opening ways for exploitation for profit. This, in turn, leads to the second problem. False light can be used to chill free speech, a right guaranteed to both citizens and publishers by the First Amendment. Also, the similarity of the tort to defamation carried the danger of redundancy in legislation.
This paper assesses five case studies which look at trials where false light was invoked, and how different states and courts approached the issue. Based on these case studies, the question of false light tort nature and validity is investigated in detail, in particular, its relationship with free speech and the First Amendment.
Ultimately, the paper concludes that it its current state the tort is too open for abuse, and before it can be considered a fully functional part of the law, it needs to be redefined in a way that would remove confusion, prevent misuse, and would not chill speech.
Vanishing False Light Claims
False Light claims are responses to breaches of privacy of non-public persons and are in many ways similar to defamation claims. The primary difference between the two lies in that the primary purpose of the defamation laws is the protection of the plaintiff’s reputation, which false light regulations concern themselves with the protection of the claimant’s mental or emotional well-being (“False Light Law & Legal Definition” par. 1).
While the privacy of a person is a very important part of their rights, and it is the responsibility of the law to protect citizens from harm, both physical and mental, false light claims are connected to a lot of ambiguity by nature. First of all, they are much vaguer in the description and open to interpretation. While for a valid case of defamation the information published needs to be objectively false, the information that led to a false light claim can be technically true but might have been presented in a misleading manner. This creates the potential for exploitation of the legal system in order to profit at the expense of the defendants.
Additionally, a major issue flows from the fact that false light claims need to be balanced against the right to free speech as granted by the First Amendment, which makes the argument even more convoluted, regardless of whether the plaintiff is simply attempting to “play the system”, or actually feels harmed by misleading statements in the media. The plaintiff doesn’t need to provide proof that the published information is damaging to their reputation or status, but rather that it can be considered offensive by a reasonable individual. Naturally, similarly to most modern cases when the offensive nature of publication is brought up, this has a large potential to chill speech.
The purpose of this paper is to study the nature and technicalities of the problem, the main questions raised by such claims, research how the Supreme Court and other states have handled false light claims, and what is the relevance of this type of tort in the modern legislation.
Time, Inc. v. Hill
The first case study in question is Time, Inc. v. Hill (Time, Inc. v. Hill 385 U.S. 374). The case involved the Hill and his family claiming that the magazine Life used their history of being held hostage, in order to advertise a book-based play about a similar situation, which was not based on the original incident and was not endorsed by the family in any way. Life used photographs of scenes from the plays and staged them in the former Hill house.
Since the Hill family, the appellee, had opposed publicity efforts to highlight the incident due to the high amount of involuntary notoriety that had stricken them, they made a claim against Life. Hill alleged that Life attempted to increase the public interest to the play by inferring that it depicted the Hill hostage situation, for the purpose of trade and without any prior consent. In response, the defendant maintained the position that the article was published in good faith and that its subject was of general interest to the public.
In court, the jury was instructed to consider if the article in question was published not for the purpose of providing news, but for the purpose of increasing the magazine’s sales and advertise the resent play.
The Court also concluded that guilt could be found within Life’s actions if the connection between the Hill incident and the play was made either knowingly, or due to insufficient research into the issue (recklessness on behalf of the magazine).
The final instruction was that there need not be actual malice behind the act, but simply the disregard for Hill’s rights.
The court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, granting them compensatory and punitive damages, although these were limited to compensatory damages during the appeal.
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Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co.
Forest City Publishing Co. published a newspaper feature story about the death of a father in a bridge collapse incident (Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co.). The story contained inaccuracies and false claims about the husband and his family, which led the late man’s wife and son to file a lawsuit against the publisher and the reporter, for the invasion of privacy and being depicted in a false light.
The original decision by the District Judge was to deny the plaintiff’s demand for punitive damages, on the grounds that there was no evidence of malice on behalf of the defendants. However, he directed the case to the jury, to assess the “false light” issue. The jury was instructed that compensation could be approved only if it was found that the issue was the result of conscious falsification of facts or reckless disregard of the truth, and they awarded the compensation. The Court of Appeals, however, determined that the defendants have published “calculated falsehoods”, which made the publisher liable for the actions of its reporters and validated the plaintiff’s claims.
Denver Publ’g Co. v. Bueno
This case served to address whether the State of Colorado would allow a plaintiff to make the false light invasion of privacy claims (Supreme Court of Colorado).
The Denver Publishing Company produced an article, entitled “Denver’s Biggest Crime Family”. The plaintiff, Eddie Bueno, submitted a claim against the Publishing Company and the author of the article. His claim was that it invaded his privacy and defamed him, by attributing to him the same criminal propensities, like his siblings. He also attempted to demand compensatory and punitive damages for public disclosure of private facts, defamation by libel, and libel.
The Court ruled against Bueno on the of the charges but granted him the false light claim. At the time, this served as an affirmation that Colorado could permit lawsuits for the tort of false light. However, in 2002, two years after the case, the Supreme Court of Colorado concluded that they would no longer recognize the tort, due to its similarity with defamation. The main difference between the two was found to be too subjective to be used in court appropriately. Also, the Court was concerned about the chilling effect on the freedom of free speech, granted by the First Amendment.
The Court discussed court cases that dealt with false light claims, including Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., 419 U.S. 245 (1974), which discussed published information which was offensive, yet not necessarily defamatory. However, the final conclusion was that these cases constituted a very small pool of examples and that the existing privacy torts more than covered most of them.
Cain v. Hearst Corp.
The article by the Houston Chronicle, published by the defendant Hearst Corporation, published an article in which they discussed the plaintiff, Clyde Cain, who is a prison inmate serving a life sentence for murder (Supreme Court of Texas). Cain claimed that the article invaded his privacy and pitted him in a false light, by associating him with a criminal organization known as the Dixie Mafia, with which he claimed to not hold any connections.
Hearst Corp. filed for dismissal, arguing, to not only did Cain file his claim more than a year after the article was published, making it invalid under the one-year statute of limitations but also that the state of Texas does not recognize False Light actions, for a number of reasons. These reasons include it a duplication of other rights of recovery, like defamation, while not being regulated by the same procedural regulations, making it an unacceptable threat to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The Texas Supreme Court declined to recognize the tort of false light.
Welling v. Weinfeld
Welling v. Weinfeld, 866 N.E.2d 1051 (Ohio 2007) case played a very important role for the Supreme Court of Ohio (Supreme Court of Ohio).
In this case, the plaintiff-appellee, Lauri Weinfeld, and defendants-appellants, Katherine and Robert Welling, were neighbors who entered into a dueling litigation. Weinfeld owned a party centre next to her home, and sued, arguing that the Wellings family disrupted events and activities through the use of yard and farm equipment. She claimed that this constituted nuisance, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and trespass. Welligns counterclaimed that Wienfeld invaded their privacy by directing floodlights on their property, and conducted video surveillance. Their second statement is the reason why this case is tied to false lights claims and why it is important to the State of Ohio.
After an unknown perpetrator broke the window in the Wienfeld’s party center, she assumed that it was the defendant-appellants’ son, and circulated handbills, which offered reward for the information about the guilty party, while implying that the family was to blame. She solidified the implication by distributing the handbills at locations of significance to the Wellings.
Wellings used this story to file a false light claim, stating that these actions created wrongful publicity about them before the local public.
The jury decided in favor of the Wellings, granting them both punitive and compensatory damages.
The court case continued with Weinfeld attempting to move for judgment on his claims, independent of the verdict in the appellants’ favor, and was overruled.
However, the principle value of this case to the paper is the fact that the Supreme Court of Ohio fully recognizing the value of the false light invasion of privacy tort, and adopt Restatement of the Law 2d, Torts, Section 652E, for the purpose of regulating these torts. In order to avoid chilling the freedom of speech and the misuse of the tort, the presence of actual-malice was introduced as one of the principle conditions of a recognized false-light tort. According to this condition, mere negligence and erroneous judgments do not constitute a false-light issue, and the publication needs to be aware of the discrepancy with the truth, or act with reckless disregard towards it.
Additionally, the Court recognized that while there were fears about dangers to the First Amendment, nowadays false light had a much higher capability to harm than in the past, a fact that needed to be recognized and addressed accordingly.
Main Questions about False Light
By studying the case studies above, a number of common threads can be found in the courts’ lines of thinking, in the conditions that facilitated positive or negative rulings in the court cases, and it the questions raised about the existence and validity of such torts.
The three principle questions were concerning the nature of the false light privacy invasion tort, the relation of the false light tort with that of defamation, and the friction created between the nature of the false light claims and the freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment.
What constitutes a false light privacy invasion tort?
|Recognition of the Government Interest||Competing Interests|
|Protecting the privacy of the populace.||Is very subjective in its definition of harm, and is exploitable as a result.|
How does the false light tort coexist with the defamation tort?
|Recognition of the Government Interest||Competing Interests|
|Covers the gaps in defamation laws and provides a better understanding of the harmful effects the media can have on a stakeholder.||Has too many similarities with the defamation tort, while also having less requirements for proof, creating confusion.|
How does false light tort affect the First Amendment and the free speech?
|Recognition of the Government Interest||Competing Interests|
|Prevents publishers from harming the populace through malicious or reckless disregard for facts, which, more misleading than false.||False light comes very close to infringing upon the freedom of speech. Since a very large volume of information can be considered offensive, free deferral to false light tort can severely inhibit the freedom of speech.|
Assessment of the Case Studies
To better assess how the case studies help in finding how the questions above relate to the problem, it would be wise to divide the case studies into two groups. The first group are those where the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in a false light claim, and the second is where the ruling was made against the plaintiff.
Time, Inc. v. Hill, Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., and Welling v. Weinfeld all had the courts rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
What these cases have in common is that in each case the defendants have been proven to make their statements with reckless disregard for facts. Specifically, they biased their publications in ways that portrayed the plaintiffs in an unfavorable light, for the purpose of personal benefit. In Time, Inc. v. Hill, the Life magazine implied a connection between a play about a family taken hostage and a family which has actually gone through the ordeal, for the purpose of creating additional hype for the play.
Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co. saw the reporters and the publishers focus and specific aspects of the Cantrell family’s situation, in order to add dramatic tension to the story. Finally, in Welling v. Weinfeld, Weinfeld had prior confrontations with the Wellings family, and showed them in a bad light in front of the community through implication of their involvement in a vandalistic act.
In the Cain v. Hearst Corp. case, the Texas Supreme Court recognized that the case had much more in common with a defamation claim. Since false light tort carries a much smaller burden of proof than a defamation tort, the Court agreed upon it being a threat to the freedom of speech.
Similarly, Denver Publ’g Co. v. Bueno saw the plaintiff attempt to sue the publisher for alleged misleading statements in their article about is ties to his family’s criminal activities. The final decision of the court followed very similar logic to that of the Texas Supreme Court, with freedom of speech being a major concern, and other privacy invasion torts being seen as more than adequate to cover the issues discussed under false light claims.
Additionally, while cultural perspectives and mentality can be discussed as the reasons for different approaches to false light claims, it is also a fact that the case studies where such claims were dismissed were dealing with publications that voiced matters of certain public concern, particularly discussing the possible affiliations of a tried and sentenced murdered, and discussing the history of a family with a rich criminal backstory, which not only was troubling enough to warrant coverage, but also took steps to mention that the plaintiff was not, in fact, affiliated with this history.
This can imply that the perception of the tort in question is heavily molded by the court case in question.
The rulings made by the Judges often refer to the same precedents, although occasionally wit different results.
One of the key court cases referred by most of the case studies is the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). This was the landmark case that established the actual malice standard, which has to be met before accusations of defamation, libel, and false light can be made (“Actual Malice Law & Legal Definition” par. 1). Actual malice is often mentioned in effort to avoid erroneous false light claims, and as a way to enable free speech. Both Time, Inc. v. Hill and Time, Inc. v. Hill refer to it, in the effort to determine the presence of the actual malice. Time, Inc. v. Hill changes the approach from actual malice to neglect and reckless misuse of facts.
Cain v. Hearst Corp also plays an important role as a precedent, referred to both by Welling v. Weinfeld and by Denver Publ’g Co. v. Bueno. It is used to show the dangerous overlap between the false light tort and defamation. Denver Publ’g Co. v. Bueno is also brought up in Welling v. Wenfeld for the same purpose.
Actual malice, reckless disregard of the truth and chilling of the free speech are probably the principal legal “terms of art” that are common in these cases. The first two are mentioned in the statuary laws of several states as the principle constituents of a false light claim. Interestingly, this also shows one of the main problems with this tort, as these conditions are also relevant to the defamation invasion of privacy tort, leading to a significant blurring between the two concepts.
The third “term of art” refers to the second problem with the tort. Due to its vagueness and reliance on subjective data, rather than objective evidence, false light claims can potentially pose the same threat to the freedom of speech, as did the libel and defamation torts before the concept of actual malice was introduced.
While the Cain v. Hearst Corp. and the Denver Publ’g Co. v. Bueno case studies make solid arguments why false light claims bear a threat to the freedom of speech, and often dangerously overlap with the defamation tort, while demanding a smaller burden of proof, it is also true that a significant amount of cases have been presented, where despite the lack of defamation, the plaintiffs were significantly mentally or socially harmed through the defendants’ misleading information.
While in the past such cases would not have necessarily carried the same weight, nowadays, with the development of digital media and the increasingly fast spread of information, simply implied negative information can quickly spread through the media, and cause the person discussed both stress and social problems.
While it is certain that at the present moment the false light tort is still very vulnerable to exploitation, especially in comparison to defamation, we believe that it still needs to be considered in court, in order to protect the dignity and mental and social well-being of the populace, even if in a narrow choice of cases.
False light presents a complicated and controversial issue, with opinions on it differing from one state to another. In order for it to be used most effectively, it needs to be better differentiated from the defamation tort, and new clauses need to be introduced to prevent the misuse of this tort for the purpose of limiting the free speech as granted by the First Amendment and profiting on behalf of the defendant publishers.
Actual Malice Law & Legal Definition. n.d. Web.
False Light Law & Legal Definition. n.d. Web.
Supreme Court of Colorado. Denver Publ’g Co. v. Bueno, 54 P.3d 893, 897-98. 2002. Web.
Supreme Court of Ohio. Welling v. Weinfeld, 866 N.E.2d 1051. 2007. Web.
Supreme Court of Texas. Cain v. Hearst Corp., 878 S.W.2d 577. 1994. Web.
U.S. Supreme Court. Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., 419 U.S. 245. 1974. Web.
U.S. Supreme Court. Time, Inc. v. Hill 385 U.S. 374. 1967. Web.