Pop star Kesha and music producer Dr. Luke have settled a defamation lawsuit after an almost decade-long legal battle that began with rape accusations Kesha made against him in 2014.
The settlement follows a recent ruling by the New York Court of Appeals, which held that Dr. Luke, whose legal name is Lukasz Gottwald, is a public figure and would have to prove “actual malice” to win his defamation case against the pop star, whose full name is Kesha Rose Sebert. A media coalition led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had urged the court to reach that decision, arguing that lower courts had erred in finding that the music producer is a private figure.
The actual malice standard, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan, requires that public figures and public officials prove that a defamatory statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth. Private figures, however, must only establish that a defamatory statement was made with negligence. The ruling by the state’s highest court would have made it much harder for Dr. Luke to prevail if the case had ultimately gone to trial later this summer.
The legal battle between Kesha and Dr. Luke dates back to 2014, when the pop star alleged that Dr. Luke had raped her shortly after she signed a recording deal with the producer roughly nine years earlier. Dr. Luke then sued Kesha in New York, claiming that her accusations were false and defamatory.
A key question raised as part of the defamation lawsuit was whether Dr. Luke is a public figure, the answer to which would play a crucial role in the outcome of the case. In 2020, a New York trial court ruled that Dr. Luke was not a public figure, concluding that Dr. Luke never injected himself into the public debate about sexual assault, meaning he could not be considered what is known as a “limited-purpose” public figure.
After Kesha appealed the decision, the Reporters Committee, joined by 16 media organizations, filed the first of three friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the pop star. The brief emphasized the impact that such a ruling could have on public-interest journalism.
“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,” the Reporters Committee, represented by Professor Eugene Volokh and the UCLA School of Law First Amendment Clinic, as well as attorneys from Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP, argued in the brief. “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.”
In 2021, however, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, prompting Kesha to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Earlier this year, the Reporters Committee, joined by a coalition of 28 media organizations, urged the appeals court to reverse the lower-court ruling and find that Dr. Luke is a public figure.
The New York Court of Appeals ultimately agreed, concluding that Dr. Luke is a limited-purpose public figure, and, as a result, that he must prove actual malice.
“[Dr. Luke] purposefully sought media attention for himself, his businesses, and for the artists he represented, including Sebert, to advance those business interests,” Judge Michael J. Garcia wrote in his June 13 opinion. “He had been featured in various publications, as well as on radio and television, highlighting the nature of his relationships with those artists and his development of their talent and careers.”
Following the court’s ruling, Dr. Luke dropped the defamation lawsuit against Kesha. The case had been scheduled to go to trial in July. Both Dr. Luke and Kesha announced the settlement on their respective social media accounts.
“I am looking forward to closing the door on this chapter in my life and beginning a new one. I wish nothing but peace to all parties involved,” Kesha said.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.