Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Michigan Court Affirms False Light Appeal

In a per curiam opinion the Michigan Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court's dismissal of a false light invasion of privacy action against hip hop artist Eminem. In Deangelo Bailey v. Marshall Bruce Mathers III, a/k/a Eminem Slim Shady, the court held that the private figure plaintiff had failed to show falsity in this "publication of public concern."

The plaintiff had objected that in a song called "Brain Damage" and in a Rolling Stone article in which he discussed the lyrics of the song, the defendant had "negligently placed him [the plaintiff] in a false light concerning his character." The lyrics recounted how the plaintiff had "shove[d] [the defendant] in the lockers", taken his chocolate milk, "stomped" on him and committed other batteries, some with the assistance of the school principal.

Reviewing de novo the trial court's decision and considering the evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the court stated first: "[t]he tort of false-light invasion of privacy cannot succeed if the challenged statements are true....[P]laintiff has not challenged the trial court's identification of the allegedly actionable statements in both the song lyrics and the Rolling Stone article..." Thus, the court concluded, "[P]laintiff has not demonstrated any error in the trial court's conclusion that plaintiff failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact with regard to the falsity element under the substantial truth doctrine."

Further, the court found that the lyrics themselves contained "a  number of signals that would convey to a reasonable person that it should not be taken literally....Examples include the highly improbable event of a school principal assisting plaintiff in "stomping" on defendant and leaving him for dead...It is apparent that a reasonable listener would not take the song lyrics about defendant literally The sting of the song lyrics rests in their characterization of plaintiff as a bully, rather than the specific factual statements about the bathroom assault. Thus, the material question is whether the literal truth yields the same effect...In light of plaintiff's admissions that he "picked on" defendant when defendant was in the fourth grade and that plaintiff was part of a group at school that did "bully type things"...we uphold the trial court's determination that no genuine issue of material fact was shown....Viewing the evidence most favorably to plaintiff, plaintiff's deposition indicates that plaintiff...picked on defendant."

Concluded the court, "A reasonable person could interpret the uncontested facts as indicating that plaintiff...bullied defendant...Because the literal truth yields the same effect as the sting of the song lyrics, plaintiff did not meet his burden....Hence, the trial court properly granted defendant's motion...".

Read the entire opinion here.

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