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. Indeed, at least as to the defamation (slander) cause of action, it is highly unlikely that claim will survive. LaBeouf accused Bernstein of being “racist,” and for the reasons stated in a prior article, that will typically not support a defamation claim.

[UPDATE January 13, 2022] I looked in on the doings between LeBeouf and the bartender, and as I predicted, the defamation claim did not survive. As explained in detail in Episode 31 of the California SLAPP Law Podcast, for a statement to be defamatory, it must be offered as a true statement. Sometimes the hyperbolic nature of the language used in the purportedly defamatory statement makes clear that it is not being offered as a true statement. That was the case here. The judge ruled that “rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets, lusty and imaginative expressions of contempt and language used in a loose, figurative sense will not support a [defamation] action.” In other words, when LeBeouf called the bartender an FRB, he could not seriously have been taken to mean that the bartender was literally an FRB.

On June 26, 2020, the cause of action for slander was dismissed, leaving only the causes of action for Assault and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. Reading the tea leaves of the docket, here is what I believe occurred thereafter.

On August 24, 2020, the parties stipulated that LeBeouf’s counsel could bring a motion for summary judgment. A motion for summary judgment has to be heard at least 30 days before trial, but it is often the case that all the available hearing dates are beyond that deadline. It is therefore common that the attorney must seek permission from the court to “specially set” the hearing date. Counsel for Bernstein agreed to the request.

However, no summary judgment documents were ever filed, and on October 13, 2020, what was left of the action was dismissed. If a motion for summary judgment had been filed, and then the action was dismissed, that could have been an indication that Bernstein’s attorney felt he could not overcome the motion, and dismissed the action. But since no motion papers were filed, I’d bet a shiny nickel that the parties settled the case. With the slander cause of action gone, the claim for infliction of emotional distress could not be based on the FRB comment. Bernstein would thus have been left to seek damages only for the vodka-bottle threat, and the emotional distress he suffered from that threat. It would be difficult to claim straight-faced to a jury that you felt threatened by Shia LeBeouf. I’m guessing the case settled by LeBeouf paying some nominal amount to Bernstein.

And so ends the saga of Shia LeBeouf and the bartender, but I’m confident LeBeouf will continue to generate litigation news.


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

Leave a Reply

Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Orchard Technology Park
11 Orchard Road, Suite 106
Lake Forest, CA 92630

(714) 954-0700

Email Aaron Morris
Information Helpful?
Buy me coffee
SLAPP Law Podcast

Click "Amazon Music" for all episodes of California SLAPP Law Podcast


NOTICE PURSUANT TO BUSINESS & PROFESSIONS CODE SECTION 6158.3: The outcome of any case will depend on the facts specific to that case. Nothing contained in any portion of this web site should be taken as a representation of how your particular case would be concluded, or even that a case with similar facts will have a similar result. The result of any case discussed herein was dependent on the facts of that case, and the results will differ if based on different facts.

This site seeks to present legal issues in a hopefully entertaining manner. Hyperbolic language should not be taken literally. For example, if I refer to myself as the “Sultan of SLAPP” or the “Pharaoh of Free Speech,” it should not be assumed that I am actually a Sultan or a Pharaoh.

Factual summaries are entirely accurate in the sense of establishing the legal scenario, but are changed as necessary to protect the privacy of the clients.