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New York judges suggest that Dr Luke might be a public figure as Kesha defamation case rumbles on

By | Published on Wednesday 19 April 2023


Judges in the New York Court Of Appeals seemed to be erring towards classifying producer Dr Luke as a public figure at a hearing yesterday, which would have a big impact on his ongoing defamation lawsuit against Kesha. Though his lawyer urged the judges not to equate having a profile within the music industry with being a public figure.

Luke’s defamation lawsuit against Kesha is all that remains of what began as a multi-layered multi-state legal battle which was kickstarted when Kesha accused Luke of rape. He denies those allegations and – arguing that Kesha’s claims have negatively impacted on his career – he sued for defamation.

As the defamation case has gone through the motions, there has been much debate as to whether Luke needs to show that Kesha acted with actual malice when making her allegations against him. If he does, that would increase Luke’s burden in court and make it harder for him to win.

Under the relevant laws that were in place when this dispute began, Luke would only have to show actual malice if the courts deemed him to be a public figure.

The judge hearing the case decided that the producer, as someone who worked behind the scenes in music, wasn’t sufficiently famous to be classified as a public figure, despite having enjoyed plenty of commercial success with the music he produced.

Kesha’s team appealed that decision, hence the hearing in the Court Of Appeals. According to Law360, during a session yesterday judges there mused that Luke has actually garnered much public attention through his musical collaborations with various pop stars, not least Kesha.

One of the judges, Madeline Singas, added: “Someone like Dr Luke could call up, seemingly, someone like Rolling Stone or Billboard and say, ‘I want to do an interview’, and you know what, they’d show up. In this industry, he was in essence a household name”.

However, Luke’s lawyer David Steinberg countered that Kesha made her allegations against his client to the wider world via social media. The producer’s profile within the industry is not what matters, he reckoned, and among the public at large he is not well known. Or at least wasn’t prior to his high profile legal battles with Kesha.

The Kesha side also has a second option to pursue that would likewise increase the burden of Luke’s lawyers, so that actual malice would need to be proven in court.

While the Luke v Kesha case was going through the motions, a new free speech law was introduced in New York state which says that the actual malice requirement could apply in defamation cases filed by people who are not public figures if the allegedly defamatory statement relates to issues of public concern.

The judge overseeing the Luke v Kesha litigation initially decided that that new law did impact on this case, meaning the actual malice obligation would have to be met. But an initial appeal by the Luke side overturned that decision on the basis that the new law did not explicitly state that it should be applied retrospectively to cases already filed before said new law was passed.

The Kesha side wants the Court Of Appeals to change that ruling too. Her lawyer, Anton Metlitsky, argued yesterday that New York lawmakers passed the new law in response to “a proliferation of vindictive, harassing, retaliatory lawsuits against journalists, consumer advocates and survivors of sexual abuse”.

It would be bizarre, he then added, if those lawmakers didn’t want the new rules to benefit the very people subject to those “vindictive, harassing, retaliatory lawsuits” whose legal woes motivated the law change.

It remains to be seen how the appeal judges now rule on these two matters. The actual defamation lawsuit itself is due to go to trial in July.