LOS ANGELES • Actor Marlon Wayans was cleared on Thursday of racially harassing a fellow African-American actor in a "ground-breaking" decision seen as paving the way for black artists to call one another "nigga" without fear of being sued.
The ruling by a Los Angeles appeals court draws the line under a three-year legal battle launched after Wayans made fun of actor Pierre Daniel, comparing him with Cleveland Brown, a character in the long-running animated series Family Guy.
Daniel claimed Wayans racially harassed him on the set of A Haunted House 2 by posting a side-by- side image of him with the character, captioning it: "Tell me this nigga don't look like... THIS NIGGA!!!"
Daniel, who was employed on the movie produced by Wayans, sued, but the case was dismissed in 2015 by a Los Angeles judge who acknowledged the similarity between the "obviously black, heavy... with curly 'Afro' hair" cartoon character and the plaintiff.
The 44-year-old comedian and White Chicks actor's stock-in-trade was stereotyping, the judge said, ruling that the banter came under the banner of free speech.
Daniel appealed but the decision was upheld on Thursday, court papers seen by Agence France-Presse showed. "I would say this is a ground-breaking ruling on First Amendment rights for comedians or, more broadly, the entertainment industry as a whole," Wayans' lawyer William Briggs said.
Daniel had claimed that he was subjected to "offensive and derogatory language regarding his race/national origin (African-American)" by Wayans, who repeatedly referred to him "as nigga, a derogatory term and racial slur used to refer to African Americans".
The appeals court ruled that use of the variant "nigga" - rather than the epithet "nigger" - did not amount to discrimination because it was used colloquially between members of the same race as a term of endearment.