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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2 Responses to “Brüno” Victory in Court? Bingo!

  1. Talor Bearman says:

    After looking at all of the cases that were brought against Cohen in connection with his movie “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” I do not know if I am more surprised that people continue to sue him, or that he is willing to take all of these cases to court.

    I have little doubt that Cohen has the financial means to follow through with these lawsuits, but I would imagine that at least some of these plaintiffs would have been able to find a settlement fee that would save Cohen on his legal bills (whether or not he would win the case). This leads me to believe that Cohen is unwilling to settle these cases because he there is value in his public victories. If nothing else, it will likely allow him to continue to make his “mockumentaries” because I suspect that all of his Consent Agreements have the same language. Plus, it has to help his case that the agreements that the plaintiffs sign before being filmed states that they “without limitation to waive, and agree not to bring at any time in the future, any claims against the Producer, or against any of its assignees or licensees or anyone associated with the Film, which are related to the Film or its production or this agreement.”

    I doubt that this will be the last case brought against Cohen, but if Olson couldn’t win over a jury in a wheel chair, and the fraternity brothers that signed the agreement after “heavy drinking” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/6136944.stm) had their case dismissed, I can’t imagine many other plaintiffs stand a chance.

  2. Kevin Lumpkin says:

    This sounds like a pretty idiosyncratic plaintiff to me. She shouts “I will not have anyone make a mockery of this bingo hall,” loses it and has to go to another room where she sobs uncontrollably and loses consciousness! Can we really expect every flamboyant Austrian who disrespects the great and ancient art of bingo to foresee loss of consciousness and subsequent brain bleeds?