Hollywood Docket: 'The Great Debaters' Lawsuit Prompts First Amendment Argument

Plus, a judge sends the 'Doc McStuffins' merchandise dispute to arbitration, and Gene Simmons has dropped his attempt to trademark his rock gesture.
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'The Great Debaters'

A lawsuit over Denzel Washington's portrayal of Melvin B. Tolson Sr. in The Great Debaters could chill the freedom filmmakers rely on when making features about historical figures, according to producers.

David Wayne Semien sued in March, claiming the 2007 film about a Texas collegiate debate team in the 1930s violated Tolson's right of publicity, which he now says he controls. (Tolson died in 1966.)

Now, Harpo Films, MGM and The Weinstein Co. are asking the court to toss the suit, arguing the filmmakers are protected by the First Amendment and Semien is nearly 10 years too late in filing the complaint.

"The Complaint alleges that Mr. Tolson’s family members attended the premiere of the film in Los Angeles, California, so they undoubtedly were aware of any potential claim at that time," writes attorney Mary Ellen Roy.

Further, Roy argues that because Tolson is from Louisiana — a state that doesn't expressly recognize postmortem rights of publicity — that right died with him.

"Louisiana law is clear that any right of publicity is personal, and thus, claims for alleged violation of the right of publicity cannot be pursued by the heirs of the deceased, or by their purported representative, such as Plaintiff here," writes Roy.

The motion also argues that Semien's theory would have a "profoundly chilling effect on free speech."

"Filmmakers would be required to obtain approval from historical figures depicted in motion pictures (or from their heirs), who could veto controversial or unflattering portrayals," writes Roy. "Such a rule of law could have prevented the production of recent Oscar-winning or -nominated films such as Spotlight, The Big Short, Selma, The Social Network, The Hurt Locker, and Hidden Figures, all of which feature portrayals of real-life individuals." (Read the full motion here.)

In other legal news:

— Trademarks are so not rock 'n' roll, apparently. KISS bassist Gene Simmons has abandoned his effort to trademark his signature hand gesture. The rocker's attorney on Tuesday filed a request for express abandonment that contained no explanation for the decision. Simmons did, however, retweet an image of himself, the Dalai Lama and Starkey Hearing Technologies senior vp Brandon Sawalich using the gesture on Thursday at the hearing aid company's panel on compassion. So, it's possible that someone informed Simmons the gesture he's been using for decades is American Sign Language shorthand for "I love you," and he decided against pursuing his trademark. 

Doc McStuffins voice actress Kiara Muhammad is headed to arbitration to resolve a dispute over her share of merchandise revenue. The young star's mother, Anitra Muhammad, sued Studiopolis and Disney Character Voices in October, claiming that they haven't been paying her daughter the 2.5 percent of net merchandise receipts that she's owed. Studiopolis asked the court to compel arbitration based on a written agreement between the parties, but Muhammad argued it was unenforceable because it named SAG-AFTRA as the arbitration forum and the union refused. Los Angeles Superior Court judge Michael Raphael sided with the studio, finding that the language suggests matters "shall be submitted" to SAG-AFTRA but does not explicitly mandate it be adjudicated there. 

— A court is ordering ITV Holdings to comply with a March preliminary injunction that put Duck Dynasty co-creators Scott and Deirdre Gurney back in charge of their production company's day-to-day operations while their legal fight plays out. Los Angeles Superior Court judge Susan Bryant-Dyson also imposed $12,000 in monetary sanctions against ITV for failing to reinstate the Gurneys as managers, prohibiting them from accessing Gurney Productions funds, delaying their access to the company's books and other violations of the injunction. (Read the court minutes in full here.) 

Rolling Stone has reached a $1.65 million settlement with Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity mentioned in its retracted story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia chapter. The frat sued in 2015, alleging reputational harm and seeking $25 million in damages. This resolution follows one with UVA associate dean Nicole Eramo, who had also sued for defamation over the story, following a $3 million jury verdict in her favor. Another suit from three individual fraternity brothers was dismissed last summer, but they are appealing that decision. 

— The Anti-Defamation League is thanking Frankfurt Kurnit Klein + Selz for its pro bono work in opposition to President Donald Trump's travel ban by giving it the Edward Brodsky Founder's Award on Tuesday at its annual Human Relation Awards Luncheon in New York. Frankfurt Kurnit attorneys have filed seven briefs on behalf of ADL, in cases from New York to Hawaii, while donating their time to the cause.

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