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Florida court knocks out false light claims

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Florida does not recognize a false light invasion of privacy claim, the state's high court held on Thursday. In a…

Florida does not recognize a false light invasion of privacy claim, the state’s high court held on Thursday.

In a double victory for free speech advocates, the court’s decision not to recognize the false light claim in a lawsuit against the group Jews for Jesus in effect threw out another false light suit against the Pensacola News-Journal.

Both cases were handed down by the court on the same day.

The News-Journal ‘s false light lawsuit involved a claim by a contractor, Joe Anderson, over an article the newspaper published that he claimed implied he had murdered his wife, whom he shot unintentionally in a hunting accident. Anderson had been awarded $18 million by a jury, though that decision was reversed by an intermediate appellate court.

The Jews for Jesus case involved a lawsuit by the stepmother of a Jews for Jesus employee. Edith Rapp sued the religious group for invasion of privacy by false light after it published an article in its newsletter that she claimed alleged she was affiliated with Jews for Jesus.

The Court decided the Jews for Jesus case first, and, in a 37-page opinion infused with language protecting freedom of speech, held that recognizing a false light claim has the potential to chill speech.

“Because the benefit of recognizing the tort, which only offers a distinct remedy in relatively few unique situations, is outweighed by the danger of unreasonably impeding constitutionally protected speech, we decline to recognize a cause of action for false light invasion of privacy,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente.

Since the Jews for Jesus case held that there is no claim for false light in Florida, Anderson’s lawsuit against the News-Journal was without basis, the court held, and it was thrown out.

The false light claim is one of four invasion of privacy torts. False light is similar to a defamation claim in that it requires the plaintiff to show some level of falsity — false statements in the case of defamation, or just a "false" context that could have a negative connotation in the case of false light claims. However, defamation claims in Florida have additional judicial safeguards – such as requiring notice to the defendant prior to a lawsuit, a shorter statute of limitations, and a limitation of the amount of damages that can be awarded.

In Justice Pariente’s opinion, she wrote that because the defamation claim has judicial safeguards protective of speech, it should be a plaintiff’s only remedy. Allowing false light claims as well will “persuade plaintiffs to circumvent these safeguards in order to ensure recovery, even though the same could be equally remedied under defamation law,” she wrote.

The Court added: “Without many of the First Amendment protections attendant to defamation, it has the potential to chill speech without any appreciable benefit to society.”