Right to Privacy: Placing a Person in False Light in the Public Eye

Placing a person in false light in the public eye takes place when a person’s right to privacy has been violated, and where another person publicizes information about them which places them in a false light to the public.

This tort is akin to defamation laws, and the lines drawn are quite fine. Defamation, whether libel or slander, occurs when the information publicized is false. But if the said information that was publicized is not technically false, but the publication was done in such a way that the effect is misleading and inaccurate, then it is a violation of a person’s privacy under the false light tort. The burden of proof in the latter is not quite as onerous as it is in defamation cases.

Two important factors that characterize damages of this sort include malice or a deliberate intent to put the plaintiff into a false light, and a result which is considered highly offensive or embarrassing to any reasonable person. Also, the defendant must have published the information with reckless disregard to its offensiveness.

Oddly enough, no showing of actual damage or harm to the plaintiff is necessary. Should damages be granted, the courts will determine the amount. Besides, what constitutes “public” varies. Whether it be publicizing to a handful of people, or to a broader audience, the test ultimately is whether or not the information disseminated is certain to, later on, become a matter of public knowledge.

Overall, what matters in this cause of action is not the truthfulness or accuracy of the information being made public, but the impression that is made upon the public about the plaintiff as a result of the said publicized information.

But since this type of information dissemination is highly impacted by a person’s personal opinion, this right is also balanced by First Amendment Rights to free speech.

There is a lot of overlapping in the elements of defamation and false light laws that some states have called for the integration of false light laws with defamation laws. The actual growth and jurisprudence of false light laws vary between states.

Broadly speaking, false light laws are favorable to the plaintiff in a number of ways. Not only is the onus of evidence not as demanding as in a defamation case, but even if the defendant claims the defense of truth, one can always claim some form of damage in the manner or method in which the fact or information was publicized, that led to misleading information that placed the plaintiff in a false light.

In other words, despite the fact that defendant told the truth, a judge can take a look at the entirety of the circumstances to determine whether there has been a violation of privacy. If the information was publicized in such a way as to lead the public to false or misleading conclusions about the plaintiff, and that the publication of this information is highly offensive or embarrassing to any reasonable person, when the defendant did so with the intention of placing the plaintiff in a false light, then there is a cause of action for a tort.