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Gottwald (Dr. Luke) v. Sebert (Kesha)

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 16 media organizations

Court: New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department

Date Filed: April 9, 2020

Update: On April 22, 2021, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the trial court’s ruling in favor of Dr. Luke. On June 17, 2021, the Reporters Committee, along with a coalition of 23 media organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Kesha’s motion for leave to appeal, arguing that the trial and the appellate courts erred in holding that Dr. Luke is not a public figure. After Kesha appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, the Reporters Committee and 28 media organizations filed another friend-of-the-court brief in support of the pop star on March 3, 2023. The Reporters Committee’s brief argues that the trial court and the Appellate Division erred in holding that Dr. Luke is not a public figure for purposes of the standard applicable to his defamation claims. On June 13, 2023, the New York Court of Appeals held that Dr. Luke is a limited public figure “who must prove by clear and convincing evidence that [Kesha] acted with actual malice.” On Jun 22, 2023, Dr. Luke and Kesha announced that they had reached a settlement over the rape and defamation claims. 

Background: In 2014, music producer Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr. Luke, filed a defamation lawsuit against singer Kesha Rose Sebert, aka Kesha, in response to the pop star’s accusation that he had sexually assaulted both her and singer Katy Perry.

In February, the New York Supreme Court entered partial summary judgment in Dr. Luke’s favor, ruling, among other things, that the producer is not considered a public figure. Had he been classified as such, his claim of defamation would have been subject to the “actual malice standard,” meaning that, in order to prevail, Dr. Luke would have to show that Kesha’s accusation was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Kesha has since appealed to the New York Appellate Division, arguing, among other things, that the trial court erred by failing to classify Dr. Luke as a public figure.

Our position: The appeals court should reverse the trial court’s opinion that Dr. Luke is not a public figure and recognize that he actually does qualify as such in the following ways:

  • Dr. Luke is an “all purpose public figure” in that he has promoted himself to public prominence, achieved significant name recognition and notoriety in the press, and used his large social media following to enhance his access to the press.
  • Dr. Luke is a “general public figure within a relevant community,” given his power and influence in the music industry.
  • Dr. Luke is a “limited purpose public figure” because he has voluntarily injected himself into the public controversy of treatment of artists by business people and executives.

The Reporters Committee and the media coalition are represented in this matter by the UCLA School of Law First Amendment Clinic and Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP.

Quote: “In recent years, the #MeToo movement has revealed sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood, the music industry, business, and beyond. Journalists have played an important part in uncovering wrongdoing, highlighted by award-winning investigative reporting from outlets such as The New York Times and The New Yorker. But the lower court’s decision in this case — that even powerful and famous alleged abusers are private figures in the eyes of the law so long as they have not inserted themselves into the public debate about sexual assault — threatens to chill this essential reporting.”

Related: Court rulings on whether certain individuals are considered public figures in the eyes of the law can have serious implications for the work of journalists. The Reporters Committee keeps up with cases like these and many others involving defamation claims on the Libel and Privacy section of our blog.

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