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Rapper's songs were privileged opinion, court says

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         THIRD CIRCUIT         Libel         Jul 25, 2000    

Rapper’s songs were privileged opinion, court says

  • Rapper Tupac Shakur’s songs against a politician were opinion and thus not capable of being defamatory, a federal appellate court held in July.

Rapper Tupac Shakur’s lyrics against a politician who was on a crusade against rap music were opinion and thus protected from defamation claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) decided on July 17.

The appellate court’s decision upheld the 1999 dismissal of the claim by the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

Months before he died in 1996, Shakur released a record that twice criticized C. Dolores Tucker, former secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and former chair of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus. Tucker had led a crusade against “gangsta rap.”

One of the songs that referred to Tucker, “How Do U Want It,” says, “Delores Tucker, yous a muthafucka, instead of trying to help a nigga you destroy a brotha, … you too old to understand the way the game’s told.” In the other song, Shakur says, “Dear Ms. Delores Tucker, you keep stressin’ me, fuckin with a motherfuckin’ mind. I figured you wanted to know, you know, why we call them ho’s bitches. … It’s strictly business, baby, strictly business.”

Tucker responded to the songs by suing Shakur’s estate and various recording companies, distributors and retailers in federal District Court in 1997.

She argued that Shakur portrayed her as a traitor when he knew that she was not. Because Shakur’s 5 million fans considered Shakur a “god,” Tucker also argued, they would take Shakur’s lyrics to be facts, not opinion. She also argued that the lyrics invited Shakur’s fans to “eliminate” her.

The district court found for Shakur’s estate and the other defendants who were sued for the lyrical attacks. Tucker appealed to the Third Circuit.

Tucker told the Third Circuit that the trial court had not read Shakur’s lyrics in context. The Third Circuit disagreed, saying that in context the song was about the “self-destruction of a young woman” and that the song’s reference to Tucker did not suggest that she was like the other women Shakur referred to.

In explaining its holding in an unpublished opinion, the Third Circuit wrote that the reference to Tucker “did not tend to injure her reputation, her business or profession, or expose her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule and thus were not defamatory.”

The court described the reference to Tucker as an opinion “that Tucker was out to hurt rather than to help her fellow African-Americans.”

Tucker’s husband had added to the original complaint a loss-of-consortium claim, reports of which led Tucker to file more lawsuits that did not succeed. Richard Fischbein, attorney for Shakur’s estate, had told the Philadelphia Daily News that it was hard to conceive how the lyrics could ruin her sex life. Time and Newsweek also printed stories about the claim.

Tucker sued Fischbein and the magazines for defamation, arguing that their reports had intentionally ignored the truth and caused Tucker to be ostracized and shunned. Tucker said the loss of consortium claim was added for marital problems other than sex.

She later dismissed the claim against Fischbein, and a federal judge cleared Time and Newsweek.

(Tucker v. MTS Inc., Artist’s Attorney: Stephen Kastenberg, Philadelphia) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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