First Amendment

Defamation Lawsuit Against Afroman Filed by Ohio Cops Will Partially Proceed

A judge tossed two of the claims against Afroman, finding that "the issue appears to be the humiliation and outrage that the officers feel at having their likenesses displayed and mocked."


The rapper Afroman will have to continue to defend himself against a defamation lawsuit filed by Ohio sheriff's deputies who raided his house after a judge allowed some of the deputies' claims to proceed.

In a ruling last week, an Ohio county judge dismissed two of the deputies' claims against Afroman, best known for his 2000 hit "Because I Got High," finding that the rapper's commentary was protected artistic speech. However, the judge allowed three other claims to proceed, finding that it was not outside the realm of possibility that the deputies could prove they were entitled to relief.

The Adams County Sheriff's Office (ACSO) executed a search warrant on Afroman's house last August on suspicion of drug possession, drug trafficking, and kidnapping. As Reason reported in June, the deputies were searching for evidence of outlandish claims from a confidential informant that the house contained a basement dungeon.

Deputies found neither large amounts of marijuana nor a depraved dungeon. Afroman was never charged with a crime. He responded by releasing two music videos viciously mocking the deputies—"Lemon Pound Cake" and "Will You Help Me Repair My Door." He also sold merchandise with images of the deputies and used the footage to promote his products and tours.

The mockery offended the deputies so much that seven of them filed a lawsuit against Afroman in March. The deputies argued Afroman used their personas for commercial purposes without permission, causing them to suffer "embarrassment, ridicule, emotional distress, humiliation, and loss of reputation."

In an October 13 ruling on Afroman's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Adams County Judge Jerry McBride tossed out the deputies' claims of invasion of privacy by misappropriation and unauthorized commercial use, finding that, "while their quality and appropriateness may be questioned, [Afroman's] artistic and musical renderings have substantial and creative content which outweighs any adverse effect on the plaintiffs in terms of their right of publicity."

"In this case, the value that seems to be at issue here is not the monetary value of the officers' likenesses, which appears to be nominal," McBride wrote. "Instead, the issue appears to be the humiliation and outrage that the officers feel at having their likenesses displayed and mocked by the defendant. Undoubtedly, they also feel aggrieved by their investigative actions being questioned publicly."

However, McBride allowed three of the officers' other claims—false light, unreasonable publicity of private lives, and defamation—to survive, finding that many of Afroman's comments on the deputies appeared to be statements of fact rather than opinion. For example, Afroman posted on social media that deputies wanted to kill him, that one of them stole money from him, and that another deputy was a lesbian.

"My clients are pleased with the Court's ruling denying the defendants' motion to dismiss their claims," Robert Klingler, an attorney for the deputies, says. "Telling lies about people in public discourse is never justified, especially when those lies are vile, intentional, and meant only to unfairly damage people's reputations. Mr. Foreman has until now acted as if he can say anything he wants, not matter how untrue and despicable, without any repercussions. We look forward to demonstrating that neither Mr. Foreman, nor anyone else, has the right to intentionally lie about others for the purpose of causing them injury."

The Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed an amicus brief in support of Afroman's motion to dismiss the suit, arguing it was a blatant example of what's known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP).

"We were pleased to see that the trial court properly dismissed several of the police plaintiffs' claims," says David Carey,  deputy legal director of the ACLU of Ohio. "Even at this early stage, it is obviously meritless for the officers to claim that Afroman 'misappropriated' commercial value merely by commenting on the events of a destructive search of his home—even if that commentary took the form of harsh mockery, and even if it was placed on products that he offered for sale."

Such retaliation for publicly criticizing the police is sadly common. Reason recently reported on a lawsuit filed by an Iowa man who was arrested twice for criticizing his local police department during the public comment period of a city council meeting.