Florida Throws Out False Light Verdict

In a major victory for the media, the Florida Supreme Court throw out a lawsuit where the Pensacola News Journal was successfully sued for false light of road-building contractor Joe Anderson. Anderson sued over a series of articles in 1998 about environmental issues surrounding the paving company he founded, Anderson Columbia. The story included references being on probation for fraud in 1988 when he shot and killed his wife in a Dixie County hunting accident. This was only days after he filed for divorce. The substantive decision came in an equally interesting case of Jews for Jesus v. Rapp.

Anderson argued that this put him into a false light, but the Florida Court now has held that it does not recognize false light as a claim in the state. Florida is one of a few states that reject false light because of its threat to free speech. Instead, you must prove defamation. The decision was written by Justice Barbara Pariente. The more substantive analysis is part of the Jews for Jesus opinion here.

That case begins with this factual discussion:

We begin with the facts that gave rise to the claim for false light invasion of
privacy in this case, which are based on the allegations contained in the second amended complaint of the petitioner, Edith Rapp. Edith Rapp was married to Marty Rapp until his death in 2003. Bruce Rapp, who was Marty’s son and Edith Rapp’s stepson, was employed by Jews for Jesus, Inc. Prior to Marty’s death, Bruce reported the following account in the Jews for Jesus newsletter: I had a chance to visit with my father in Southern Florida before my Passover tour. He has been ill for sometime and I was afraid that I may not have another chance to be with him. I had been witnessing to him on the telephone for the past few months. He would listen and allow me to pray for him, but that was about all. On this visit, whenever I talked to my father, my stepmother, Edie (also Jewish), was always close by, listening quietly. Finally, one morning Edie began to ask me questions about Jesus. I explained how G-d [sic] gave us Y’Shua (Jesus) as the final sacrifice for our atonement, and showed her the parallels with the Passover Lamb. She began to cry, and when I asked her if she would like to ask G-d for forgiveness for her sins and receive Y’Shua she said yes! My stepmother repeated the sinner’s prayer with me-praise G-d! Pray for Edie’s faith to grow and be strengthened. And please pray for my father Marty’s salvation.

Rapp, 944 So. 2d at 462. The complaint alleged that the newsletter was published on the internet and seen by one of Edith’s relatives. Id. The gravamen of Rapp’s claim is that Jews for Jesus falsely and without her permission stated that she had “joined Jews for Jesus, and/or [become] a believer in the tenets, the actions, and the philosophy of Jews for Jesus.”

The Court rejected false light as a claim in Florida as part of that case.

The court found that concerns over false light were valid: “(1) it is largely duplicative of defamation, both in the conduct alleged and the interests protected, and creates the potential for confusion because many of its parameters, in contrast to defamation, have yet to be defined; and (2) without many of the First Amendment protections attendant to defamation, it has the potential to chill speech without any appreciable benefit to society.”

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