False Light:

False light is the stepbrother of libel. It is so similar to libel that not every state in the union even recognizes false light as a tort. It is identical to libel in the sense that the plaintiff has largely the same problem with the published material as he or she would in the case of libel. In a nutshell, false-light plaintiffs are alleging that something has been published about them which is both misleading and offensive. Where false light differs from libel is that


Let me repeat this:


It is also important to note that a false-light plaintiff doesn't have the same burden of proof as a libel plaintiff. As I note here and clarify here, a libel plaintiff has to prove a). that he or she was the victim of a falsehood, b). the person's reputation was damaged, and c). it was done with actual malice. It depends on the state, but false-light plaintiffs usually only need to prove a). the publication distorted the truth, and b). it was done offensively. False light also differs substantially from libel in the sense that while libel is a tort of defamation, false light is a privacy tort. This seems strange, and is counterintuitive, but it eventually makes sense. Think about it in terms of identity theft: Someone who appropriates your identity for their own purposes has essentially invaded your privacy. In the case of false light, a publication is doing virtually the same thing, they are appropriating someone's identity, or reputation, or likeness, and using it for their own ends. I use the term "stepbrother" because while there is some family resemblance between false-light and libel claims, their lineage is different.

A photo illustrating false light captured by Hubble telescope. The false light of a star (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Hubble Telescope).

One of the most famous examples of someone suing for false light occurred in 1966, when southpaw pitcher Warren Spahn sued his biographer by referring to him as a war hero. Spahn, the winner of a bronze star while fighting in the Pacific theater during the Second World War (not to mention hundreds of baseball games) found it offensive to be called a war hero -- and won damages from the author. Whether someone is painted in a false light is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

The state of Florida has recently seen a rash of false light claims, some of which are described in this article by The St. Petersburg Times and reprinted on the Poyter Institute's website here. Florida false light claims -- and efforts by lawmakers to reduce them -- may have had an indirect impact on who ended up winning the Democratic nomination for governor during the past 2006 race. You can find that Times article here.

Sources Consulted:

Sources I consulted to produce this website fall into three categories: Either they are legal or media textbooks and casebooks I used for the core content, they are legal websites or I used for caselaw, or they are news sites I used for articles. As far as the graphics used in the site, I got them purely from federal government sources online that allow for free use -- none of the images used in this site have a copyright claim on them.


Garner, Bryan A. Black's Law Dictionary, (St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2001), I got the definition for my definition page on p. 417.

Middleton, Kent R., and Lee, William E. The Law of Public Communication, (New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2007). For the information I used above for the false light section, I consulted pp. 207-14. For the information I used in the libel definition and case law pages, I used pp. 92-128, except the description of Milkovich which I found on p. 158. The quotation on the case law page I got from p. 121. Also, the actual malice section of both the case law and definition pages I paraphrased from p. 138. For the defense page, I consulted ppp. 161-179.

Zelezny, John D. Cases in Communication Law, (New York: Thomson Wadsworth Inc., 2007, 5th ed.). For the case law section, I used the cases listed on pp. 65-93 and their descriptions as a backup reference.

News Articles:

“Appeals Court Reverses $18.28 Million Verdict Against Pensacola News Journal,” (Arlington, Va.: Gannett Publishing Co.) Oct. 21, 2006: http://www.gannett.com/go/newswatch/2006/october/nw1026-4.htm

Leary, Alex, and Liberto, Jennifer, “Press protection bill may be costing Smith.” (St. Petersburg, Fla.: The St. Petersburg Times, July 15, 2006): http://www.sptimes.com/2006/07/15/State/Press_protection_bill.shtml

McCullagh, Declan, and Hansen, Evan, "Libel Without Frontiers shakes the Net," (New York: CNET, Dec. 11, 2002): http://news.com.com/2100-1023-976988.html

Mooney, Jake, "From Simple Story to Major Mess: The not-so-funny comedy of errors behidn the largest libel award in Virginia history." (New York: The Columbia Journalism Review, Sept./Oct., 2003): http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/5/mess-mooney.asp

Parker, Laura, "Courts are Asked to Crack Down on Bloggers, Websites." (Arlington, Va.: USAToday, Oct. 2, 2006): http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-10-02-bloggers-courts_x.htm

Pressman, Steven, "An Unfettered Press: Libel Law in the United States."(Washington, D.C.: U.S. State Department): http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/press/press08.htm

The Associated Press, "Judge Dismisses Britney Spears' Libel Suit." (New York: The Associated Press, Nov. 7, 2006): http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15595990/


Legal and Media Sources:

Definitions all come from the legal dictionary found at Law.com.

The Libel Checklist I link to on the defense page can be found here.

The state press association list came from Newsvoyager.com.
All cases linked on the case law page came from findlaw.com, except for the link to Grace v. eBay Inc., which came from www.steptoe.com.

I also found the Media Law Resource Center site extremely helpful, and link to it frequently throughout this site.

The Oyez Project is extremely helpful with Supreme Court information, and I included its two libel sites on privacy and defamation in this site.

I also linked to Cornell University's law school, with all of its legal information, here.

Image Sources:

The front page photo for this site I got from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The image I used above came from NASA's Hubble telescope.

The map of East Timor I used on the definition page came from the U.S. Secretary of State, Office of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. U.S. Secretary of State, Office of East Asian and Pacific Affairs."

The circa 1900 photograph that I used on the site devoted to libel case law came from the U.S. Supreme Court website.

The background image that I used to decorate the edges of this site I culled from the National Archives, "Charters of Freedom."