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.
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On September 18, 2019, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal held in Hullick v. Gibraltar Private Bank & Trust Co. & Hayworth that a corporation’s board of directors’ discussions during a board meeting did not constitute defamation because the board’s intra-corporate communications were not “published” or communicated to a third party. Since the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United fortified the notion that corporations are people, the Florida Court of Appeal allows corporations to talk to themselves—without fear of defamation lawsuits.

Hullick v. Gibraltar Private Bank & Trust Co. & Hayworth is set against the backdrop of an allegedly well-documented $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme purportedly orchestrated by a prominent Florida lawyer (now disbarred and serving a 50-year sentence in federal prison).[1] Gibraltar Private Bank and Trust Company, one of the appellees (co-defendant below), was one of two banks where the lawyer allegedly laundered money.[2]


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