Straight Outta Compton, charting the rise and demise of N.W.A., didn’t win any Oscars this past Sunday, but the filmmakers can still make a mark in a battle against the hip-hop group’s former manager Jerry Heller.
Heller alleges in a $110 million lawsuit that he was falsely presented in the film as the “bad guy.” He further claims that what was true in the movie violated his publicity rights and what was false in the film defamed him. NBCUniversal, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and other defendants have reacted to the lawsuit by moving to strike many of his claims as a so-called SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”).
Here’s Heller’s full opposition to the anti-SLAPP motion, and while we’ll refrain from covering everything in Heller’s bid to save the lawsuit, there’s something in particular that is noteworthy.
California’s anti-SLAPP statute aims to deter legal actions taken against the exercise of First Amendment rights on matters of public interest. On Feb. 17, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals showcased the application when dispensing with a lawsuit against The Hurt Locker, another film alleged to have both violated publicity rights and been a defamation. Did Heller’s attorney Michael R. Shapiro miss the bulletin?
On Monday, Heller argued that statements about him in Straight Outta Compton — which grossed more than $200 million worldwide from a seemingly interested public — hardly amounted to free speech in connection with an issue of public interest.
The defendants previously told the court that the careers and personal relationships of members of N.W.A., set against the backdrop of social and racial tensions, is “indisputably” an issue of public interest. Heller disagrees. He’s coming to the judge with the contention that his prior involvement with N.W.A. doesn’t rise so far.
“It is beyond dispute that Defendants’ defamatory statements regarding Heller, even if true, contribute nothing to any alleged public debate about anything,” states Heller’s opposition brief. “Instead, Defendants make the unsupported argument that any statement made in any movie are matters of public debate.”
If the guy who wrote a book about his experiences as N.W.A. manager (and then worked on a screenplay!) can’t convince the judge there’s no public interest involved, he’ll then need to show he has a probability of prevailing in the lawsuit before his claims move any further. Heller will have an easier time on his defamation claim if he’s not deemed to be a public figure. (He’d only need to show negligence, rather than actual malice.)
The defendants say, of course he is, at very least, a “limited purpose public figure” thanks to his connection to celebrities.
“Heller is not a person in the ‘public eye,'” argues Heller’s attorney in opposition. “He is not a ‘national known figure,’ he has not received or sought out extensive ‘media coverage,’ and he has not thrust himself into any public controversy. Rather, he is merely a seasoned professional in the music and entertainment business, trying to continue to earn an honest living.”
Uh, and about that memoir that Heller wrote? Is that injecting himself into controversy? His attorney says the book doesn’t identify or refer to any “controversies” because “no public controversies regarding Heller’s involvement in the history of N.W.A. exists when the truth is told.”
According to Heller, the filmmakers made false statements about him “to make the Film more interesting and, thus, more profitable,” which is an odd position to take from someone who is also arguing the public doesn’t care about him.
His memorandum adds, “Instead, if Defendants, and each of them, made truthful statements about Heller in the Film, then ‘the history of the groundbreaking Ruthless Records’ is not changed; ‘the meteoric rise of its hugely successful musical group, N.W.A.’ still occurs; Eazy E still dies from AIDS in 1995; Ice Cube and Dr. Dre still depart from N.W.A.; and ‘the integral involvement of Plaintiff in that entire history’ is truthfully told.”