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.