In a groundbreaking ruling about harassment and social media, a California Appellate Court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against actor and comedian Marlon Wayans over comments made on a film set and a tweet comparing a movie extra to a cartoon character.
The case, Daniel v. Wayans (2017) 8 Cal. App. 5th 367 (Daniel), was based on comments made and a tweet posted by Wayans during the writing and producing of A Haunted House 2. Wayans was accused by actor Pierre Daniel of using the word "nigga" as a racial epithet. The court unanimously ruled that in this context of the word being spoken by a black man to another black man, the word was not an epithet but instead was a term of endearment and was being used as part of the creative process.
The court noted that "[M]any of Wayans's projects 'involve making fun of pop culture, racial stereotypes'" and that "[b]y frequently using the term 'nigga' in the off-camera development of the movie itself, Wayans directly contributed to the public conversation about that controversial word and how it may be used." The decision noted that Marlon Wayans' First Amendment rights trumped the claim of discrimination because he was creating a scene in a movie when he repeatedly used that word.
Wayans was also sued over a tweet, which contained a picture of the plaintiff and "Cleveland Brown," a popular cartoon character. The court held that since Wayans juxtaposed the images with his own lampoon commentary about the physical similarities of the two pictures, it was protected speech.
"We are very gratified that the court unanimously upheld the ruling dismissing the case against Mr. Wayans. The entertainment industry as a whole can breathe a sigh of relief with this ruling. Creators of content for film, television, and social media will approach their tasks with a sense of greater freedom rather than fear of repercussions for what happens in the writers' room and on set," said William Briggs.
The Appellate Court upheld the award of attorneys' fees and granted additional appellate costs to Marlon Wayans.
Venable LLP partners William J. Briggs, II and Eric Bakewell led the appellate team with Celeste Brecht. Rachel Richards also assisted the team.
This ruling has been covered by The Hollywood Reporter and Law360.