UPDATE (June 22, 2023, 3:10 p.m. ET): Music producer Dr. Luke has dropped his defamation lawsuit against pop star Kesha. They released a joint statement on Thursday announcing their agreement to a resolution of the lawsuit.
Seeking media attention is part of succeeding in the entertainment business, but doing so can have unintended consequences, such as making it harder to win defamation claims.
Music producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald just learned that lesson, when New York’s top court ruled Tuesday that he was a public figure in his lawsuit against pop star Kesha, who claimed he raped her in 2005, which he has denied.
Why does being a public figure, as opposed to a private one, matter in defamation suits? Recall the historic litigation between Dominion Voting Systems and Fox News over the network broadcasting 2020 election lies that settled in April. That involved the “actual malice” standard that public figures need to carry to prove their defamation claims. It’s a notoriously difficult test for plaintiffs to meet, which is what made the Dominion v. Fox litigation so remarkable, because the voting machine company seemed poised to meet it before the case settled at the last minute. Under that actual malice standard, plaintiffs need to show that the statements in question were made with either knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard for the truth.
Turning to this long-running litigation in New York, Kesha (full name Kesha Rose Sebert) signed a recording contract with a company of Gottwald’s in 2005 and went on to release several successful albums. But in 2014, she filed a lawsuit to void her contract with Gottwald, citing the alleged rape and claiming he "verbally and emotionally abused her throughout their working relationship."
Gottwald then sued that same year, denying the claims and alleging the "Tik Tok" singer defamed him. A lower appeals court sided with him on that crucial public figure question, basically ruling that he wasn’t a household name and hadn’t injected himself into public controversy.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press led a media coalition that wasn’t directly involved in the case but weighed in to support Kesha’s argument, urging the state’s top tribunal, called the Court of Appeals, to reverse. The committee argued in an amicus brief ahead of Tuesday’s ruling that siding with Gottwald would threaten essential reporting by endorsing the notion that “even powerful and famous alleged abusers are private figures in the eyes of the law so long as they have not inserted themselves into the public debate about sexual assault.”
The Court of Appeals did indeed reverse on Tuesday, reasoning that Gottwald was “by his own account, a celebrity —an acclaimed music producer who had achieved enormous success in a high-profile career.” The court went on:
Gottwald’s engagement with the media was “obviously designed to project his name and personality” before a wide audience to establish his reputation in this field ... He purposefully sought media attention for himself, his businesses, and for the artists he represented, including Sebert, to advance those business interests ... He had been featured in various publications, as well as on radio and television, highlighting the nature of his relationships with those artists and his development of their talent and careers.
The state's top court concluded that he’s a “limited-purpose public figure” and therefore “must prove that Sebert’s allegedly defamatory statements were made with actual malice.”
It’s that heavy burden that Gottwald now carries heading into the trial set for July.
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