Alec Baldwin has never been known for his restraint – just ask his lawyers. After the fatal shooting on the set of the film “Rust”, Baldwin, 63, told reporters that his lawyer had strongly ordered him not to comment on the case, but then launched into a detailed discussion of it. Baldwin is known for his outbursts involving everyone from photographers at Drivers at family members.
The latest Baldwin litigation involves the family of a US Marine killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. It combines Baldwin’s reputation for liberal politics with his impulsive temper – and a request for $25 million.
Here’s the ultimate irony: in defense of this lawsuit, Baldwin is likely to make an argument surprisingly similar to – wait for it – Donald Trump. It looks like Baldwin may not only be playing Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” but he’ll be talking about Trump’s defenses in court.
It all started with a small but kind gesture to the family of a fallen soldier.
Baldwin gave $5,000 to Jiennah Crayton, the widow of Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, to help with their newborn daughter. McCollum was killed in the August 26 suicide bombing in Kabul at a refugee processing point during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Baldwin made the contribution through McCollum’s sister, Roice, and called the check “a tribute to a fallen soldier”.
This should have been the end of a great story.
However, Roice then shared a nearly year-old photo on Instagram of herself at the Washington Monument, participating in the January 6 protest against the 2020 presidential election. The photo did not show her walking. riots on Capitol Hill and she insists she did not participate in any wrongdoing. She says she simply exercised her right to protest the election, and that didn’t make her an oath keeper.
Indeed, a lawsuit she filed against Baldwin states: “During the riots, she was trapped outside the Capitol building next to several police officers for hours after the riots began due to the fact that there were so many people around her and the area had been locked in. … Later, a neighbor who was unhappy that Roice had attended the protest reported her to the authorities.
Roice was interviewed by the FBI and would have cleared of any wrongdoing.
Baldwin, in signature style, was furious; he seemed to believe that sending a modest contribution to the wife of a dead Marine gave him a say in the sister’s political discourse. He wrote: “When I sent the dollars for your late brother, out of respect for his service to this country, I had no idea you were a Jan 6 rioter.”
Roice replied – correctly – that “protesting is perfectly legal in the country and I have already met with the FBI. Thank you, have a nice day!”
Baldwin, however, went public with the matter and appeared to taunt Roice by telling him he would make her infamous: “I don’t think so. Your activities resulted in the unlawful destruction of government property, the death of a law enforcement, assault on presidential election certification. I reposted your photo. Good luck.”
Baldwin later reposted the photo and called Roice an “insurgent” with his 2.4 million Instagram followers.
Baldwin must have known what might happen next. He maintains a feverish political following on the left, due to his portrayal of Trump and his regular pronouncements on politics. The display unleashed some of his followers, who harassed the family and denounced them alike. This included, according to the complaint, statements like “Get raped and die…. Your brother got what he deserved.”
The complaint states that “Baldwin’s comments were untrue, outrageous, defamatory, irresponsible, vindictive and caused – and continue to cause – the Complainants severe emotional distress. Instead of being able to focus on grieving the death of LCPL McCollum and raising her newborn daughter, the complainants and their family now fear for her life.
The defamation case will raise some interesting questions. The first will be family status. As discussed recently in a different case, public figures or “limited public figures” face a higher standard of proof in defamation cases. It could be argued that McCollum became a limited public figure subject to the highest standard of proof in New York Times vs. Sullivan. This standard, written for civil servants, was later extended to public figures. The Supreme Court has ruled that “public figure” status applies when a person “pushes[s] himself in the whirlwind of [the] public issue [and] to hire[s] public attention in order to influence its outcome. A “limited-purpose public figure” status applies if someone voluntarily “draws”[s] attention to himself” or allows himself to be part of a controversy “as a point of support to create a public debate”. Wolston vs. Reader’s Digest Association443 US 157, 168 (1979).
At some point in this public feud, Roice became a public figure. Indeed, in her public comments about her deceased brother, she might have crossed the line before Baldwin came into her life. As a public figure or limited public figure, she would have to meet the actual malice standard. That in itself is ironic in that Baldwin, the ultimate celebrity, could perhaps knock Roice (who just a few years ago was just a lifeguard in Wyoming) with the higher burden aimed at characters like him. Roice and his family will have to show “actual malice” – knowledge of the falsity of a statement or reckless indifference as to whether it was true or false.
There seems to be no doubt that Roice was not a rioter. However, Baldwin is likely to argue that calling Trump supporters “insurgents” is opinion rather than a literal reference to foul play. As I was criticizing Trump’s speech when he was still delivering it and condemned the attack at the Capitol, I have always maintained that it was a demonstration that turned into a riot. I still believe thatdespite recent sedition conspiracy charges against a small number of the thousands of protesters that day.
Baldwin can still argue “truth” as a classic defense against libel. However, it doesn’t seem literally true that Roice was a rioter or an insurgent in terms of his actions. So Baldwin may have to do his best Trump impersonation yet — in front of an audience of only one: a judge.
The Washington Post once published a column on the difficulty of knowing whether controversial lines were uttered by Trump or by Baldwin portraying Trump. Although Baldwin won an Emmy for playing Trumphis toughest performance may be yet to come.
Baldwin will probably have to argue that he is not responsible for the actions of his followers and was simply expressing his own political views. Additionally, he will argue that his use of inflammatory rhetoric is constitutionally protected. The reference to Roice as being a “rioter” and an “insurgent,” he might say, was referring to her support for a movement that sought to overturn the election and ultimately led to a riot.
He may be right. His public attacks on the family may make him a horrible person – but the hyperbolic reference to “rioters” and “insurgents” is commonplace in political and media statements today. These labels are widely used to refer to Trump supporters, describing them as sharing responsibility for the Capitol riot.
Baldwin is particularly known for his reckless rhetoric, such as saying Trump should be buried in a Nazi cemetery with a swastika on his grave. For its part, Trump seems to enjoy Baldwin’s role in the fatal shooting of its cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins. For a time, the two seemed to spiral into unpredictable and often insulting tirades of each other; now they could embrace split defense.