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Defamation vs. False Light: It’s Not Just About Lies

Defamation and false light are both legal concepts related to harm caused by false statements. Defamation focuses on the harm to one’s reputation due to false statements, whereas false light focuses on the emotional or mental harm caused by portraying someone in a false or misleading manner, regardless of whether the statements are defamatory.
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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark

What is Defamation?

According to Law Cornell, defamation is a legal term for a statement that harms someone’s reputation [1]. It covers both written (libel) and spoken (slander) statements.

Defamation cases are governed by state laws, which can vary. These laws define what constitutes defamation and the damages that may be awarded. Defamation cases often involve a balancing act between freedom of speech and the right to protect one’s reputation.

To prove prima facie defamation, a plaintiff must show four things: 1) a false statement purporting to be fact; 2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person; 3) fault amounting to at least negligence; and 4) damages, or some harm caused to the reputation of the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.

Elements of a Defamation Claim

To succeed in a defamation claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate the following elements:

  • The defendant made a statement about the plaintiff to a third party
  • The statement caused harm to the plaintiff’s reputation
  • The statement was false
  • If the plaintiff is a public figure, the defendant must have made the false statement intentionally or with reckless disregard for the truth. This is known as the actual malice standard. The same standard can apply to individuals involved in newsworthy events or matters of public concern
  • The statement was not privileged, meaning it was not protected by confidentiality agreements such as those between an attorney and client or a doctor and patient

Defamation Lawsuit Examples

Here are examples of actions that could constitute defamation on social media:

  • Labeling someone as corrupt or a criminal (e.g., thief, rapist, murderer) in a social media post
  • Sharing a biased story on social media that omits important facts
  • Spreading false narratives about an individual through online posts that depict them negatively
  • Re-sharing defamatory content by reposting or retweeting on platforms like Facebook or Twitter
  • Circulating untrue statements, including text messages, to others or within a Facebook group, causing harm to a person’s reputation and potentially leading to bullying or harassment

What is False Light?

False light is a legal concept related to the invasion of privacy. It occurs when someone spreads false or misleading information about another person in a way that would be offensive to a reasonable person.

Elements of a False Light Claim

In a false light claim, the plaintiff needs to establish the following criteria:

  • The defendant disseminated information concerning the plaintiff
  • The information was presented to the plaintiff in a manner that was untrue or deceptive
  • The portrayal would be deemed highly offensive or embarrassing to an average person
  • The defendant’s dissemination of the information exhibited reckless disregard for its offensive nature

False Light Lawsuit Examples

Here are some common instances that may constitute false light:

  • A company releases a photo of a married couple with a caption suggesting their relationship is purely sexual
  • John shares a post on Facebook falsely stating that his ex-girlfriend, Tyra, has declared bankruptcy
  • A business runs an advertisement implying that Michael endorses one of its products, even though he does not

What’s the Difference Between Defamation and False Light?

False light and defamation are two legal concepts that often intersect but have distinct differences. While both involve false statements that harm a person’s reputation, they differ in their focus and legal requirements.

In defamation, the primary focus is on the harm caused to the individual’s reputation due to the false statement. The statement must be published or communicated to a third party, and the plaintiff must prove that the statement is false and has caused harm.

On the other hand, false light focuses more on the emotional and personal harm caused by the false statement. The statement must be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and the plaintiff must prove that the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly in making the false statement.

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