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Bernstein v. LaBeouf

California appellate court affirms trial court’s order denying Shia LaBeouf’s anti-SLAPP motion, holding that celebrity’s private altercation with bartender who refused to serve him alcohol was not protected speech or matter of public concern.

Plaintiff David Bernstein, a bartender at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City, brought an action against defendant Shia LaBeouf, an actor, alleging causes of action for assault, slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit results from an altercation that occurred when Bernstein refused to serve LaBeouf and his companion alcohol because they allegedly appeared “significantly under the influence.” LaBeouf walked around the bar counter and entered the well area behind the bar, where the bartenders worked, and allegedly yelled at the top of his lungs. As LaBeouf was taken out of the restaurant, he shouted at Bernstein various profanities, including that Bernstein was a racist. A videotape of the incident was published by TMZ and circulated worldwide to millions of people. Bernstein claimed that, as a result, on a nearly daily basis he is called a racist by customers who have never met him.

In response to Bernstein’s lawsuit, LaBeouf filed a special motion to strike Bernstein’s complaint under the anti-SLAPP statute, insisting that calling Bernstein a racist was protected speech because the altercation occurred in a place open to the public; because it was of public interest, as evidenced by the fact that video footage of the incident was posted publicly; and because LeBeouf is a celebrity. 

The lower court denied the motion to dismiss, and the appellate court affirmed. 

A defendant may move to strike claims arising from any act in furtherance of the defendant’s free speech under the United States Constitution or the California Constitution in connection with a public issue. Courts apply a two-prong test when evaluating an anti-SLAPP motion. First, the defendant must establish that the challenged claim arises from protected activity. Second, if the defendant meets that burden, the plaintiff then must establish a probability of success on the claim.

To meet the first prong of the anti-SLAPP statute, a defendant must establish that the challenged statement or conduct implicates a public issue or a matter of public interest, and that the speech or conduct was made in connection with a public issue or a matter of public interest. However, the court held that LaBeouf’s conduct did not meet this first prong and thus did not fall within the scope of the anti-SLAPP statute. 

While courts have held that the public’s interest in the life and work of celebrities sometimes can create an issue of public interest, 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. The court held that here, LaBeouf’s statement calling Bernstein a racist was not directed at someone in the public eye. Instead, LaBeouf’s statements concerned an isolated dispute between a bartender and an intoxicated client over the bartender’s refusal to serve the client alcohol at a restaurant. The fact that LaBeouf used the word “racist” when confronting Bernstein did not convert the statements into the type of speech entitled to anti-SLAPP protection. 

Thus, the court found that neither LaBeouf’s statements calling Bernstein a racist nor LaBeouf’s other conduct during the incident at Jerry’s involved a matter of public interest or concern. Rather, LaBeouf’s statements stemmed out of an isolated dispute between LaBeouf and Bernstein. The court held that the lower court properly denied LaBeouf’s anti-SLAPP motion.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Lisa Rubin