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English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is no stranger to lawsuits – and no stranger to winning them, either. His “documentary-style” comedic films, Borat and Brüno, were surrounded by controversy before they were even released. The Borat lawsuits proved unsuccessful, but Baron Cohen’s legal battles were far from over.
In 2009, Baron Cohen and NBC Universal were sued by Richelle Olson, who claimed the actor, in his role as the gay Austrian fashion journalist Brüno, intentionally caused her “emotional distress.” Olson alleged that Baron Cohen caused a disturbance when his flamboyantly gay Brüno character called the numbers at her charity bingo game. She also claimed the distressing confrontation with Baron Cohen caused her serious injury when she passed out and hit her head.
Last week, a California Appeals Court upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss the Brüno lawsuit. The Court found that Baron Cohen’s actions at the bingo hall, where his alter ego Brüno commented on gay culture, was constitutionally protected speech. The Court recognized that Baron Cohen’s references to homosexuality sparked Olson’s angry reaction, and it was her reaction that gave rise to her claims. As such, the Court found the circumstances that gave rise to Olson’s reaction were “inseparable from [Cohen's] constitutionally protected actions.” The appellate judges reasoned “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 obtain this dismissal, Baron Cohen and NBC Universal had to show that the challenged speech addressed an issue of public interest. They argued that the Brüno character’s conduct at the bingo hall was ”intended to provide a satirical perspective on homosexuality, and gay culture by . . . eliciting homophobic reactions from those with whom Bruno interacted in the movie.” Olson countered that Baron Cohen’s statements were “rude and obnoxious” and did not implicate a public issue. But the Court disagreed, instead finding that issues of homosexuality, the gay lifestyle and homophobia are of “widespread public interest.”
Sacha Baron Cohen’s eccentric comedy style has definitely stirred up a lot of controversy. But the Borat lawsuits failed, and now with the dismissal of the Brüno lawsuit, Baron Cohen continues his winning streak. Despite all these victories, is Baron Cohen’s conduct fair? Although all film participants sign a Consent Agreement, the agreement merely states that participants are being filmed for a “documentary-style” movie. Are participants who are unfamiliar with Baron Cohen’s unusual characters being filmed under false pretenses? The courts have said no, but I’m not so sure.
– Carolina Blanco
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