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Score another win for Sacha Baron Cohen in court.
A California Appeals Court has agreed with a lower court that an altercation by Cohen at a bingo parlor during the filming of the 2009 comedy Bruno was protected free speech.
Cohen, NBC Universal, and other production companies on Bruno were sued in 2009 by Richelle Olson and her husband after allegedly being subjected to a confrontation that resulted in injuries including a “brain bleed.”
After the lawsuit was filed, Universal struck back immediately with a letter to Olson, saying that taped footage of the “altercation” showed no assault took place. The studio’s lawyers threatened the Olsons with punishment if they chose to persist with a a “demonstrably and ludicrously false complaint.”
It looks like Universal was indeed serious and is about to get the Olsons to pay up for making a claim on the eve of the Bruno release.
The incident in question happened on May 24, 2007 at Olson’s bingo hall. Cohen, acting as “Bruno,” was invited up to the stage to call out the numbers. The film crew was present, and all of the elderly people in attendance had signed a “Standard Consent Agreement” to be filmed for a “documentary-style film.”
Universal submitted 28 minutes of unedited footage showing what happened. According to a footnote in the latest appeals court decision:
“After Cohen called out the Bingo number 36, he states that “36” was the age of his former male partner. Later, when he calls out the number 3, he says that his former partner’s birthday was “May 3.” When he later calls out the number 59, he remarks that 59 was the number of his hotel room he stayed in when he met his former partner, and a few minutes later when he announces number 42, Cohen offers that “42 inches was his partner’s chest size. Finally, after Cohen announces the number 7, he comments that he met his partner on “July 7.” Some members of the audience can be heard laughing after each comment.”
The scene never appeared in the final film, which is too bad, because arguably it had what might of been the film’s best line. As Cohen continued making comments, Olson became alarmed at the vulgarity and concerned for the other Bingo players. So she approached the stage area and told Cohen to stop. Cohen asks why he can’t continue and why she’s being so rude, and Olson responds by polling the audience whether they wanted him or Olson to continue with the number-calling. The audience chose Olson.
As security officers escorted Cohen and his crew to the exit, Richelle Olson announced to the audience: “I will not have anyone make a mockery of this bingo hall.”
Later, Olson left the stage to calm herself down, where, sobbing uncontrollably, she lost consciousness, hitting her head into the concrete floor. Paramedics took her away, and she says she was diagnosed with two brain bleeds and has been in a wheelchair and walker ever since.
The litigation commenced.
After Olson filed her lawsuit, Universal responded with an anti-SLAPP motion to strike Olsen’s claims, saying that Cohen’s behavior was in furtherance of free speech.
First, a lower court, and now, an appeals court, agrees that the comedian’s actions at the bingo hall were protected by the First Amendment. According to a decision on Monday: “Cohen’s verbal exchange with Richelle Olson on stage aided in Cohen’s effort to obtain a reaction from Richelle Olson captured on video for subsequent use in the film. As such it is an indistinguishable part of the constitutionally protected expressive conduct of making the movie.”
To qualify for constitutional protection, the studio also had to demonstrate there was a public issue or interest involved in Cohen’s speech. Universal put forward arguments that Cohen’s behavior in the bingo hall were “intended to provide a satirical perspective on homosexuality, and gay culture by, among other things, eliciting homophobic reactions from those with whom Bruno interacted in the movie.”
The appeals court says this argument is convincing.
The victory not only means that Universal is successful in throwing out the lawsuit, but also in getting Olson to fork over money for its legal fees. The appeals court has also affirmed the studio’s motion to recover it’s attorney costs. Universal has made good on its threat. Meanwhile, Cohen continues his streak of beating back the various lawsuits that have been tossed his way from victims of his trademark comedy.
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