Can Drake & Kendrick Sue Each Other For Defamation Over Ugly Diss Track Accusations?

After an ugly weekend of diss-track crossfire, the beef between Kendrick Lamar and Drake now features unproven accusations of spousal abuse, drug use and even pedophilia. Those claims might be “slander” to many people, but are they defamatory? We asked the legal experts.

The long-simmering dispute between the two hip hop heavyweights went thermonuclear on Friday, when Drake dropped a track claiming Lamar had abused his fiancée. Minutes later, Lamar fired back with accusations about addictions, hidden children and plastic surgery. The next day he dropped another song accusing Drake and others of pedophilia.

With the allegations getting wilder by the minute, spectators on social media began to wonder if either rapper – but particularly Kendrick – could be setting themselves up for more than just another scathing response: “Has anyone ever filed a defamation lawsuit over a diss track before?” joked Matt Ford, a legal reporter at the New Republic, on Saturday night.


An actual lawsuit seems unlikely, for the simple reason that any rapper responding to a diss track with a team of lawyers would be committing reputational suicide. But let’s play it out: Could a rapper like Drake or Kendrick sue over the kind of scathing insults we saw this weekend?

While diss tracks filled with extremely specific invective (and we mean extremely) could certainly lead to a libel lawsuit in theory, legal experts tell Billboard that such a case would face not just legal challenges but also practical problems. First and foremost? That the accuser would open themselves up to painful discovery by opposing lawyers.

“Any plaintiff suing for defamation is putting their entire life and reputation on the line,” says Dori Hanswirth, a veteran litigator who heads the media law practice at the law firm Arnold & Porter. “If someone decided to sue over a statement that they preyed upon underage women, for example, then that person’s entire dating history would be fair game in the litigation.”

While the term “slander” gets thrown around on the internet a lot these days, actual legal defamation is pretty hard to prove in America, thanks to the First Amendment and its robust protections for free speech. Winning a case requires that an accuser show that a statement about them was factually false; mere statements of opinion don’t count, and neither do bombastic exaggerations.

“The public … has to believe that the speaker is being serious, and not just hurling insults in a diss fight,” Hanswirth says. “If the statements are not taken literally, then they are rhetorical hyperbole and not considered to be defamatory. The context of this song-by-song grudge match tends to support the idea that this is rhetorical, and a creative way to beef with a rival.”


Another legal roadblock is that both Drake and Kendrick are so-called public figures — a status that makes it very hard to win a defamation lawsuit. Under landmark U.S. Supreme Court precedents, a public figure must show that their alleged defamer acted with “actual malice,” meaning they knew their statement was false or they acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

In practice, the “actual malice” rule has made it nearly impossible for prominent people to sue for libel. And that’s by design. Without strong protections, defamation lawsuits would allow government officials, business leaders and other powerful people to harass and silence anyone who criticizes them, stifling free speech about important public issues.

“The Supreme Court has held that this heightened standard always applies where the plaintiff is a public figure, and it is designed to promote robust expression and debate,” said Adam I. Rich, a music and First Amendment attorney at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.

So, what’s the verdict? No matter how ugly the insults between Drake and Kendrick, it seems like the beef between them is probably going to remain in the form of verse rather than legal briefs.

“As both a lawyer and a fan,” Rich says, “I hope Drake and Kendrick turn the heat down and play the next round out in the studio, not the courtroom.”

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