Rosa Parks Trumps "Rosa Parks"
By Josh Grossberg
May 13 2003

A federal appeals court on Monday cast out a ruling in favor of OutKast and reinstated the civil-rights pioneer's lawsuit accusing the Grammy-winning hip-hop duo of profiting off her moniker by appropriating it for the title of their tune "Rosa Parks" and falsely suggesting the song was about her or endorsed by her.

In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (news - web sites) in Detroit sided with the 90-year-old Parks and declared that while OutKast is protected by the First Amendment, the Atlanta-based rap outfit still must demonstrate to the court why they decided to name their song after the Detroit resident when the lyrics barely mention her.

"The fact that Defendants cry 'artist' and 'symbol' as reasons for appropriating Rosa Parks' name for a song title does not absolve them from potential liability for, in the words of Shakespeare, filching Rosa Parks' good name," the judges said in their ruling.

The heart of Parks' case is that OutKast used her iconic name for commercial gain without her permission.

Parks, of course, made history for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus. Her subsequent arrest sparked a 386-day boycott by blacks against the city bus system, which led to court rulings eventually desegregating public transportation and repealing the South's Jim Crow laws.

"Rosa Parks" was one of the more popular tracks off OutKast's multiplatinum-selling 1998 Arista release Aquemini, but contains no references to Parks in the song aside from the title and the line, "everybody move to the back of the bus."

OutKast's lawyer, Joe Beck, argued that the rap duo's use of her name and the back-of-the-bus lyric did not constitute false advertising nor infringe on Parks' right to publicity as Parks' attorneys previously claimed. Rather, Beck said that while Parks' act of defiance inspired the line, it was really a symbolic slam to rival rappers looking to surpass OutKast's success.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Hackett, the lower-court judge who had initially presided over the case, agreed with the defense's argument and tossed the suit in 1999.

However, in the appeals court ruling, Justice John Holschuh writes that it was "highly questionable" what purpose the title served artistically in regards to the lyrics.

As a result, the panel sent the matter back down to the lower court, and ordered Hackett to hold another hearing to determine whether OutKast's use of Parks' name was really a "disguised commercial advertisement."

"This actually has reaffirmed the rights of other citizens in the United States that others should not appropriate one's name for profit without one's consent," Parks' attorney, Gregory Reed, tells the Associated Press. "It's another stand for which Mrs. Parks has stood tall."

The panel however upheld Hackett's earlier decision that dismissed Parks' complaint that the song defamed her character and conflicted with an ongoing business arrangement.

Beck said OutKast are considering an appeal, either before the full 6th Circuit or all the way to the Supreme Court.

"We are strongly inclined to appeal because First Amendment issues affecting artistic freedom are at stake," Beck tells AP.

Reps for OutKast's Arista label declined to comment on the suit.

This isn't the first time in recent years Parks has sought to defend her rep from those within in the African-American community.

Last fall, several activists, including Jesse Jackson, took offense when Parks' name was used in vain for laughs in the hit MGM movie, Barbershop. In the flick, a cranky cosmetologist played by Cedric the Entertainer says Parks was "tired," not heroic for refusing to give her seat on the bus and got more credit than she was due because of her association with the NAACP.

Parks herself was so offended that she refused to attend the NAACP Image Awards because Cedric was hosting.

In the end, though, she exacted a measure of revenge. Despite being nominated for five trophies, Barbershop was shut out. But CBS' telefilm The Rosa Parks Story snagged two trophies--Best TV Movie and Best Actress for Angela Bassett (news).

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