Shia LaBeouf – An Anti-SLAPP Legend in His Own Mind

Shia LeBouf anti-SLAPP legend

Shia LaBeouf, the actor of Even Stevens and Transformers fame, walked into one of my favorite eateries, and was denied service by the bartender, who felt that LaBeouf had already had enough. As Hollywood teaches, everything is based on racism, so LaBeouf immediately assumed that the refusal had to be based on racism, and called the bartender a “fucking racist” and “fucking racist bitch” (hereinafter, ‘FRB”). In classic, “do you know who I am?” fashion, LaBeouf pounded his fist on the bar counter, and yelled “you’re not going to fucking serve me?”, before going around behind the bar to confront the bartender, who felt sufficiently threatened to arm himself with a bottle of Grey Goose vodka.1 LaBeouf was escorted from the bar.

The bartender took umbrage with being called an FRB in a restaurant full of people, so he sued LaBeouf for defamation. After foolishly failing to consult with me, LaBeouf responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, and here’s where things get fun. Why would anyone on God’s green earth think that this defamation action would be subject to an anti-SLAPP motion? What is the public interest that would bring it under the statute?

But before accusing LaBeouf and his attorneys of being foolish for thinking that the an anti-SLAPP motion would apply to these facts, allow me to throw them a small bone by providing a little legal context.

Back in 2004, actor Marlon Brando died, and his living trust and will revealed that his housekeeper of many years, Blanche Hall, was named as a beneficiary. A reporter from a show called Celebrity Justice tracked down Hall in her room in a retirement home, and interviewed her, using parts of that interview on the show. Hall didn’t like how she was portrayed, and sued the show for public disclosure of private facts, infliction of emotional distress, and other claims.

Celerity Justice brought an anti-SLAPP motion, but it was denied by the trial court, with the judge concluding that the complaint did not arise from an act in furtherance of the defendant’s right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue. But the Court of Appeal disagreed, concluding instead that the terms of Brando’s will and living trust were an issue of widespread public interest, and that the complaint arose from conduct by the defendants in furtherance of their right of free speech in connection with that public issue. The anti-SLAPP motion was returned to the trial court for a determination of the second prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis. With the Court of Appeal having decided that the facts were a matter of public interest, it now needed to be determined if Hall was able to show that she was likely to prevail on her claims.

So, in its most basic form, the Brando case could be seen as standing for the proposition that something can be a matter of public interest within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute, just because a celebrity is involved, even if only tangentially. The Court of Appeal concluded that the public would be interested in how Marlon Brando’s estate was distributed, so Hall’s lawsuit fell under the anti-SLAPP statute.

No doubt that was the thought process of LaBeouf’s attorneys. “If the case involving Brando’s estate was a matter of public interest, then surely LaBeouf’s rants at Jerry’s Deli must be a matter of public interest,” they no doubt thought to themselves.

Shia LeBeouf — anti-SLAPP legend?

Not so much. Their analysis fails to take into account a number of factors, including who is speaking, who is publishing, and who the words concern.

In the Brando matter, the housekeeper was suing a television show. The publisher of the speech in question was that show, reporting on the interesting matter of how Brando had distributed his estate, with the added twist that some of it had gone to his housekeeper. Hall was suing the television show, and it could fairly be said that the show was reporting on a matter of public interest.

But in the LaBeouf case, no one is suing a media outlet for reporting on a matter of public interest. It is only the bartender, suing for the defamatory words that left LaBeouf’s mouth. As much as LaBeouf might want to think so (as evidenced by his “he will not divide us” debacle), not every word leaving his mouth is a matter of public interest. The public interest would have to arise from the bartender, not LaBeouf. Basically, the public interest would need to be whether the bartender is an FRB.

Conceivably, the focus could change if the publisher changes. If the L.A. Times reported on the incident, and LaBeouf sued, claiming the reporting put him in a false light or whatever, that would be a matter of public interest. But as between the bartender and LaBeouf, the crazy, unfounded claim that the bartender was an FRB is not a matter of public interest.

Incredibly, LaBeouf and his attorneys argued that LaBeouf’s remarks, claiming the bartender was “racist,” were protected speech under the anti-SLAPP statute because: (1) they occurred in a place open to the public – i.e., a restaurant; (2) they “were of ‘public interest,’ as evidenced by the fact that video footage of the [i]ncident was posted publicly on the TMZ website”; and (3) because LaBeouf is a celebrity, “‘[t]he public’s fascination with [him] and widespread interest in his personal life’ render his day to day conduct ‘a public issue or an issue of public interest.’”

Even more incredibly (embarrassingly so), LaBeouf and his counsel argued his statements addressed a matter of public interest because they contributed to the public debate on racism, since “it [is] axiomatic that racism and allegations of racial discrimination are matters of the highest public concern.” Racism is indeed a matter of public concern, but case law makes clear that your speech is not a matter of public concern just because you throw in a buzzword.

And finally (and I’m out of adjectives to sufficiently reflect my incredulity), LaBeouf argued that as to his physical conduct in going behind the bar in a manner that was found to be threatening, it too was protected because it was used in furtherance of, or to “emphasize,” his protected speech. I guess if he had shanked the bartender, that would have really emphasized the point.

The Court of Appeal properly rejected all of these ridiculous arguments:

LaBeouf contends his celebrity status makes “his day to day conduct ‘a public issue or an issue of public interest.’” According to LaBeouf, since footage of him calling Bernstein a racist and physically threatening Bernstein was disseminated on the internet and on television, his conduct must involve a matter of public interest under section 425.16, subdivision (e)(3) and (4). We disagree.

While courts have held the public’s interest in the life and work of entertainers and other celebrities can create an issue of public interest for purposes of section 425.16, subdivision (e) (see Stewart v. Rolling Stone LLC (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 664, 678), it is the subject of the defendant’s speech or conduct that determines whether an issue of public interest has been implicated for purposes of anti-SLAPP protection. (See FilmOn, 7 Cal.5th at pp. 145–146.) The defendant’s celebrity status, on its own, is not sufficient to render anything the defendant says or does subject to anti-SLAPP protection. (D.C. v. R.R. (2010) 182 Cal.App.4th 1190, 1226 [“No authority supports the defendant’s broad proposition that anything said or written about a public figure or limited public figure in a public forum involves a public issue.”].)

So LeBeouf must live with the reality that his statements are not all a matter of public interest. He is not the anti-SLAPP legend he believed.  But as foolish as his anti-SLAPP motion may have been, this does not mean that the bartender will ultimately prevail. LaBeouf accused him of being “racist,” and for the reasons stated in a prior article, that will typically not support a defamation claim.

 

I’m not sure why the Court of Appeal bothered to identify the brand of vodka. Perhaps it adds to the imagery.

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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