Los Angeles -Marlon Wayans was cleared Thursday of racially harassing a fellow African American actor in a "groundbreaking" decision seen as paving the way for black artists to call each other "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 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 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 sued but the case was dismissed in January 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 AFP showed.
"I would say this is a groundbreaking ruling on First Amendment rights for comedians or, more broadly, the entertainment industry as a whole," LA-based entertainment attorney William Briggs, who represented Wayans, told AFP.
Daniel had claimed that he was subjected to "offensive and derogatory language regarding his race/national origin (African-American) by the producer of the film, Defendant 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" - didn't amount to discrimination because it was used colloquially between members of the same race as a term of endearment.
A groundbreaking ruling
"That is quite significant because now it frees up folks in the entertainment industry to use that word without the chilling effect of thinking 'oh my God, somebody is going to sue me,'" Briggs told AFP.
Wayans did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but Briggs said he had been told the actor - seen most recently in 2016 parody Fifty Shades of Black - was "extremely pleased."
"I argued that the use of this term was not offensive, that it should be protected by the First Amendment, so I am more than pleased," Briggs told AFP.
"I'm thrilled that the court got this so right because in the context in which this word was used, no reasonable person could find it to be offensive."