On November 19, 2019, the California Court of Appeal held that comments made by celebrity actor Shia LaBeouf in a private and isolated dispute were not a matter of public concern and, therefore, did not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment.
The case, David Bernstein v. Shia LaBeouf, stems from an April 5, 2017 incident in which LaBeouf and his female companion walked into a Los Angeles bar appearing "significantly under the influence." When they were refused service by Bernstein, the establishment's bartender, LaBeouf allegedly became angry, and called Bernstein a "fucking racist" and a "fuckin' racist bitch" as he was being escorted out of the bar by security. Video of the incident circulated quickly and widely, much of the internet praised and supported LaBeouf, and Bernstein's life and reputation allegedly suffered. Bernstein subsequently sued LaBeouf for assault, slander per se, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. LaBeouf responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that the speech giving rise to Bernstein's claims (the insults hurled at Bernstein) was protected activity concerning a matter of public interest.
LaBeouf argued that his statements were protected speech because: (1) they occurred in a public place; (2) they were of interest to the public because they were published publicly on the internet; (3) LaBeouf is a celebrity; and (4) they contributed to the public debate on racism.
The trial court denied LaBeouf's motion, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision. In declining to grant First Amendment protections to LaBeouf's alleged name-calling, the Court of Appeal concluded that his statements were not made in connection with an issue of public interest. The Court took care to narrow the scope of its ruling to the specific circumstances of LaBeouf's case, however, namely the specific nature of LaBeouf's speech. Under California law, a defendant must establish two prongs to fall within the scope of the anti-SLAPP statute: (1) that the challenged statement or conduct implicates a public issue or a matter of public interest; and (2) that the speech or conduct was made "in connection with" a public issue or a matter of public interest. The Court decided LaBeouf's motion on the first prong and therefore did not need to analyze the second. LaBeouf did not establish that his statements implicated a matter of public interest for the following stated reasons:
- LaBeouf's statements were not directed at someone in the public eye.
- LaBeouf's comments did not address an ongoing case, controversy, or issue that had garnered any public interest before LaBeouf lashed out at Bernstein. Rather, the statements concerned an isolated dispute between a bartender and his client.
- LaBeouf's comments were part of a tantrum triggered by a refusal to serve him alcohol – and were not related to any history of racist behavior by Bernstein. In fact, there was no evidence to suggest any racist behavior in Bernstein's past.
The Court contrasted LaBeouf's case with another celebrity anti-SLAPP case, where the defendant's conduct was protected because it related to a matter that was already in the public eye: Hall v. Time Warner, Inc., 153 Cal. App. 4th 1337 (2007). In Hall, Marlon Brando's retired housekeeper, who was named as a beneficiary in Brando's will, sued the producers of a television program for elder abuse and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other things. The elderly housekeeper alleged that the producers burst into the retirement home where she was living, told her the news of Brando's death, bombarded her with questions about her financial interest in Brando's will, and recorded her virtually incoherent response. The program aired on national television and featured the interview with the housekeeper. The producers filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which was denied by the trial court, but granted by the appellate court. The appellate court held that the defendant's conduct in Hall was protected by the anti-SLAPP statute because it addressed matters of public interest: Brando's death and the probate of his will, which had garnered significant national media attention even before the defendant aired the housekeeper's interview.
In addition, the defendant's conduct arose out of an ongoing judicial proceeding—the probate of Brando's will—which, by definition, is a matter of public interest under the anti-SLAPP statute. By contrast, here, LaBeouf's conduct did not arise from or comment on an ongoing controversy but "involved a purely private dispute that only drew media attention after it occurred."