A pair of recent court decisions have reaffirmed that plaintiffs can continue to pursue false light privacy invasion lawsuits, despite much public debate and criticism surrounding the claims.
In Savely v. MTV Music Television, a U.S. District Court in New Jersey refused to dismiss a drummer’s false light claim against MTV, while a state appellate court in Ohio reversed a lower court’s decision in King v. Semi Valley Sound, LLC that threw out a sex offender’s false light claim against a magazine.
False light claims, recognized in about two-thirds of U.S. states, allow individuals to claim that their privacy interests are invaded when information is published about them that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.
Whether false light claims are valid continues to be questioned, as they are sometimes viewed as duplicative of traditional defamation claims, leading some courts to reject them. Other courts have historically never recognized false light as a claim.
Additionally, many courts and legal scholars have criticized false light claims as backdoor approaches to defamation litigation, as false light claims lack the First Amendment protections given to defamation defendants and potentially chill speech.
In the New Jersey case, drummer and music teacher Michael Savely filed a lawsuit alleging that MTV misappropriated his name and likeness, published private facts about him and portrayed him in a false light when it used a video clip of him drumming in a New York City subway as part of a production about rapper Nicki Minaj.
The case began when MTV producers approached Savely and asked if they could film him drumming and use the footage in their film. Savely refused to sign a contract form provided by MTV and then told the crew that he did not want to be filmed.
The crew filmed Savely and used a clip of his performance as part of the program about Minaj. According to court filings, after Savely was linked to Minaj by the film, several parents of his students stopped sending their children to his lessons.
According to Savely’s complaint, Minaj “dresses provocatively, uses profanity and glorifies a specific lifestyle contrary” to Savely’s. The association with Minaj created a false impression that Savely approved of her, according to Savely's suit.
In her ruling, Judge Susan Wigenton said Savely has shown that, while the footage of him is accurate, it has potentially tarnished his image and reputation among his students and their parents by associating him with Minaj.
However, Wigenton dismissed Savely’s misappropriation and private facts claims, giving him 30 days to amend his complaint to show that they are warranted.
In the Ohio appellate case, Derrick King filed a lawsuit against the owners of Busted magazine for false light, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress after the publication printed a picture of King under the heading of “Local Registered Sexual Offenders.”
The heart of King’s lawsuit focuses on the magazine’s use of “Registered” to describe King, as his lawsuit says he was no longer required to register as a sex offender when the magazine was published in June 2010.
After being convicted of gross sexual imposition in 1991, King was required to register as a sex offender until 2007, according to the ruling. But state lawmakers later sought to extend the registration requirement to 2012.
When the extension was signed into law, King filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. As a result of the suit, the website for the local sheriff’s department sex offender registry included an entry under King’s listing that said his registration had been stayed by a court.
In June 2010, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the extension, meaning that King no longer had a duty to register as a sex offender, according to his lawsuit.
In reinstating King’s false light claim, the appellate court ruled that King had sufficiently alleged that the publication naming him as a registered sex offender ignored the stay listed on the official registry or the state Supreme Court decision overturning the registration extension.
Because of the harm caused by linking King to the registration requirement, it’s possible that “a reasonable jury could find that Mr. King’s profile in Busted magazine would be highly objectionable to a reasonable man in Mr. King’s position,” the court said.
However, the court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of King’s defamation claim against the magazine, saying that “being publicly identified as a sex offender, regardless of registration status, is likely to cause a person to be subject to ridicule, hatred and contempt.”
Falsely identifying King as a registered sex offender would not “cause Mr. King to be subjected to ridicule, hatred, or contempt, or injure him in his trade or profession beyond what he would be subjected to simply by being identified as a sex offender.”