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Being a “bad guy” in a film isn’t sufficient grounds for a defamation lawsuit.
So after the real-life Jerry Heller sued over his portrayal as N.W.A.’s former manager in Straight Outta Compton, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald instructed him to tie specific lines in the film to his accusations of defamation.
Now NBCUniversal’s attorneys are asking the court to take judicial notice of the film in its entirety, to put the statements Heller claims are defamatory into context.
“This consideration of ‘the work as a whole’ includes the Film’s dramatic depiction, through a docudrama, of controversial and ambiguous relationships between public figures like Plaintiff and the members of N.W.A.” states Universal’s motion to strike filed Wednesday. “It depicted an indisputably public and longstanding controversy between members of N.W.A. and Plaintiff, their manager, concerning their business affairs and hard feelings. It did not purport to be some exposé of Plaintiff’s conduct; it merely was the creative telling of this very public story.”
Heller says the film is “littered with false statements” about him stealing money, inducing members to sign unfavorable contracts and failing to pay the group’s bills.
His amended complaint, filed in April, adds references to what he says are related scenes in the movie. Much of the referenced dialogue is profane, but doesn’t necessarily have an obvious connection to his claims. The most fact-specific example concerns Ice Cube’s line about food that paints a picture of Heller living in luxury while N.W.A. members struggled. “What don’t make sense is Eazy and Jerry eating lobster and we eating Fatburger,” he says in the film.
“The object is to destroy Plaintiff’s exemplary professional reputation, to make him the object of ridicule, hatred, and personal attack, and to negatively influence other persons and entities an dissuade them from doing business with Plaintiff in the future,” Heller claims.
The infamous lobster scene, defendants argue, was a protected dramatization based on previous statements Heller made that he “dined on lobster so often at The Palm restaurant in Los Angeles that they painted his caricature on the wall and called it ‘Palm Lobster #1 With a Bullet.'”
Defendants claim most of Heller’s beef with the film is centered on dialogue that expresses opinion or assessment of his performance as a business manager.
“Artists and movie studios should be able to depict public controversies in creative works without risk of liability,” states the motion to strike. “Nothing in that Dialogue changes the fundamental nature of what Plaintiff is challenging: the creative depiction, in a docudrama, of accusations, controversies and hard feelings between Plaintiff and N.W.A. that have existed for nearly 30 years for the public to see in rap songs, lawsuits, Plaintiff’s own Memoir, and now, the Film,” states the motion. “The Film only accurately portrays the articulation of criticisms by the same public figures whom Plaintiff admits previously had publicly leveled even harsher criticisms against him than those articulated in the Film’s Dialogue.”
Fitzgerald has found Heller is a “limited purpose public figure.” So to prove defamation, Heller will have to prove defendants either knew the information was false or acted with a reckless disregard of the truth.
Heller claims each of the defendants knew the truth and intentionally misrepresented the facts in the film to make it more interesting and profitable — and for some it was unwarranted payback. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, “had a misguided abundance of anger and hostility toward Heller because they wrongly blamed Heller for breaking up N.W.A.,” he claims.
“Allegations regarding putative motives of ‘anger and hostility’ as a matter of law do not constitute circumstantial evidence of actual malice,” replies Universal.
Now that the third and final version of Heller’s complaint and Universal’s response are in, Fitzgerald will rule on the anti-SLAPP motion. He has already found that Heller’s public persona places his claims within the scope of the statute. So his analysis will likely focus on the second prong, which requires Heller to prove that his claim is both legally sufficient and adequately supported by facts.
If the judge denies the anti-SLAPP motion, Universal alsohas filed a motion to strike any claims the court finds unactionable to streamline further litigation. The motion states Heller’s claims are not actionable for up to four reasons: The dialogue doesn’t support the implications the plaintiff draws; the dialogue is comprised of expressions of opinion; the implications are not reasonably defamatory; and the statements are substantially true.
Heller also is suing Woods-Wright for breaching a non-disparagement clause in a settlement from a previous lawsuit, and he is still pursuing a copyright infringement claim, alleging the film is based on a screenplay that is based on his 2006 book Ruthless.
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