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Rap lyrics ruled 'rhetorical hyperbole,' not defamatory

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         SIXTH CIRCUIT         Libel         Jan. 13, 2005    

Rap lyrics ruled ‘rhetorical hyperbole,’ not defamatory

  • Crude rap lyrics that conveyed no verifiable facts about the plaintiff do not defame, U.S. Court of Appeals rules.

Jan. 13, 2005 — Rap lyrics about a record producer performed by funk musician George Clinton are merely crude “rhetorical hyperbole” and not defamatory, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir) ruled last week. The court also held that a distribution company with no knowledge of the lyrics must be dismissed as a defendant to avoid a chill on protected speech.

Clinton, best known for his work in the bands Parliament and Funkadelic, performed the contested verse in the song “Speed Dreamin'” on rapper Warren G’s 2001 “Return of the Regulator” album. The lyrics, written by G, refer to “Armen” and say: “He’s a disgrace to the species into his face with some feces/Big nose motherfucker got it coming.”

Record producer Armen Boladian filed suit in Michigan state court against G, record company UMG Recordings, and Michigan distribution company, Meijer Inc, claiming defamation, invasion of privacy, emotional distress and unjust enrichment. The defendants had the suit moved to U.S. District Court in Detroit.

According to Boladian’s complaint, “The Lyrics refer to Armen Boladian. The disputes and litigation between Armen Boladian and George Clinton and concerning George Clinton’s music is well known to virtually everyone in the music business, and in particular to those persons involved in the rap music business. The reference by Clinton to ‘Armen’ in the Lyrics would be understood by such persons as referring to Armen Boladian. The Lyrics, including the statements that refer to the ‘sorrows and horrors’ of Boladian’s abuse, that Boladian is a ‘disgrace to the species’, and ‘got it [killing] comin’ are false and defamatory . . . .”

The District Court dismissed the suit because the lyrics were “rhetorical hyperbole” and not defamatory. Boladian appealed and the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed Jan. 3.

The plaintiffs “have failed to meet their burden of showing an actual, objectively verifiable defamatory statement. There was no specific allegation, such as an act of child abuse, that could be proven,” Judge Alan E. Norris wrote for the three-judge panel. “For instance, the statement that ‘Armen’ is ‘disgrace to the species,’ represents the kind of puerile taunt that, for better or for worse, is typical of rap music.”

The court also affirmed the dismissal of the distributor as a defendant.

“The complaint makes no claim that Meijer had any familiarity with the lyrics prior to distributing the album containing them but instead premises liability upon the act of distribution to an internet audience. This is not enough. To hold otherwise would be to impose a duty on retailers of books and music to screen these products for potential defamatory material. Not only would that burden be onerous, it could potentially have a chilling effect upon protected speech because retailers, in an abundance of caution, might stop selling some categories of artistic products, such as rap music, to avoid liability,” Norris wrote.

(Boladian v. UMG Recordings, Media Counsel: Daniel D. Quick, Dickinson Wright, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.)GP

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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