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Godbehere v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiffs sued Defendant for libel and false light invasion of privacy. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim as to the invasion of privacy claims and the court of appeals affirmed. Plaintiff and the other plaintiffs appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A public official in Arizona cannot sue for false light invasion of privacy if the publication relates to performance of the official’s public life or duties.

    Facts.

    In the spring and summer of 1985, Phoenix Newspapers, Inc. (Defendant), publisher of The Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette newspapers, ran over 50 articles, editorials, and columns about Maricopa County Sheriff, Richard Godbehere (Plaintiff), and several deputies and other employees of the sheriff’s department reporting that they were allegedly engaged in illegal activities, illegal arrests, misuse of funds, police brutality, and general incompetence. Plaintiff and the other named individuals brought suit against Defendant for libel and false light invasion of privacy. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim as to the invasion of privacy claims and the court of appeals affirmed. Plaintiff and the other plaintiffs appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether a public official in Arizona may sue for false light invasion of privacy if the publication relates to performance of the official’s public life or duties.

    Held.

    No. The trial court’s ruling is affirmed. A public official in Arizona cannot sue for false light invasion of privacy if the publication relates to performance of the official’s public life or duties.

    Discussion.

    The court of appeals rejected Plaintiff’s proposal that, with respect to false light invasion of privacy, Arizona should follow the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 653E which states, “One who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability…for invasion of his privacy, if (a) the false light in which…[he] was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) the actor had knowledge of, or acted in reckless disregard as to, the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which…[he] would be placed.” Instead, Arizona courts have decided to impose a more stringent standard than the “highly offensive to a reasonable person” standard articulated by the Restatement. In those cases where the damage alleged by a plaintiff is emotional in nature, the plaintiff must prove the elements of the “outrage” tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress in addition to proving that a defendant’s conduct was “extreme and outrageous” in an invasion of privacy action. To prove intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must show that a defendant who, by extreme and outrageous conduct, intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to the plaintiff that exceeds all bounds usually tolerated by society, is subject to liability for such emotional distress. The false light invasion of privacy tort, conversely, protects against the conduct of knowingly or recklessly publishing false information or innuendo that a “reasonable person” would find “highly offensive.” Although false publication may constitute outrageous conduct and vice versa, it is also true that the same wrongful conduct will not always satisfy the elements of both tort actions. Thus, the two torts exist to address, and impose liability upon, two different types of wrongful conduct. Defendant further argues that the torts of defamation and false light are so similar that Arizona need not recognize an action for false light invasion of privacy. However, the two torts address and protect different interests. A defamation action compensates damage to the plaintiff’s reputation or good name caused by the publication of false information. An action for false light invasion of privacy, on the other hand, protects mental and emotional interests. Under this theory, a plaintiff may recover even where there is no harm done to his reputation, so long as the published information is unreasonably offensive and attributes false characteristics and involves a major misrepresentation of the plaintiff’s character, history, activities or beliefs. To be defamatory, a publication must be false, and truth is a defense. Thus, while both torts are somewhat related, they serve two different objectives. Finally, Defendant claims that even if a false light tort is recognized in Arizona, the facts of the case here do not warrant imposition of liability. Certainly, the public has a legitimate interest in the manner in which law enforcement officers perform in their duties. Thus, there can be no false light invasion of privacy action for matters involving official acts or duties of public officers. However, if the publication presents the public official’s private life in a false light, a false light action may be maintained, though actual malice must be shown. Here, the publications at issue concern public acts. 


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