The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way on Monday for civil rights icon Rosa Parks to proceed with her lawsuit against OutKast and others over the rap music duo’s hit song with her name as its title.
The justices let stand a U.S. appeals court ruling that reinstated Parks’ false advertising and publicity claims against OutKast and three Bertelsmann AG units – LaFace Records, the record producer, and Arista Records and BMG Entertainment, the distributors.
Parks made history in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Her arrest, which became a defining moment in the civil rights movement, led to a 381-day boycott of the bus system by blacks. It resulted in the end of segregation on public transportation and became a catalyst for organized boycotts, sit-ins and demonstrations across the South.
The song, “Rosa Parks,” released as part of the 1998 album “Aquemini,” was nominated for a Grammy award. The lyrics do not mention her by name, but the chorus says, “Ah, ha, hush that fuss. Everybody move to the back of the bus.”
The album by rap recording artists Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton has sold more than two million copies and the song enjoyed long-lasting success on the Billboard charts.
Parks, a Detroit resident, sued in 1999, claiming use of her name without permission constituted false advertising and infringed on her right to publicity. She also claimed it defamed her character and interfered with a business relationship.
She had approved a collection of gospel recordings by various artists, released in 1995 and entitled “A Tribute to Mrs. Rosa Parks.”
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 1999, ruling constitutional free-speech rights under the First Amendment covered the use of Parks’ name.
The appeals court upheld the dismissal of the claims of defamation and interference with a business relationship, but reinstated the rest of the lawsuit.
It said the defendants needed to show some artistic reason for calling the song “Rosa Parks.” The appeals court sent the case back for more hearings to determine whether use of her name was symbolic, as the defendants argued, or disguised commercial advertisement.
Attorneys for OutKast and the other defendants appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to hear the case. They said the appeals court unconstitutionally allowed public figures to use trademark and right-of-publicity laws to censor speech.
But the high court rejected the appeal without comment.