By Dustin Rowles | Social Media | January 20, 2022 |
By Dustin Rowles | Social Media | January 20, 2022 |
For various reasons having to do with COVID, I have had to homeschool my twins the last couple of weeks. It’s not so bad, mostly. Learning new, more complicated ways to do math can be both frustrating and rewarding. “Oh cool! Now I know how to do the same math problem in 8 steps instead of the two steps I’m accustomed to!” This doesn’t have much to do with Alec Baldwin and the $25 million lawsuit that has been filed against him, except that the law sometimes is like math, in that there are simple formulas involved.
To wit: Baldwin is being sued by the family of a U.S. Marine killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. The death of the family member here is relevant because after he died, Baldwin gave $5,000 to the sister of the fallen soldier to give to his wife and their daughter. Nice, right? The sister’s name is Roice McCollum, who was entrusted to give the money to the window, Jiennah Crayton.
That was in August. On January 3rd of this year, the sister of the fallen soldier, Roice, posted a photo to Instagram of her at the Washington Monument on the day of the insurrection in 2021. Baldwin, being the lefty he is, did not take kindly to that photo, and had second thoughts about having contributed $5,000 to the family.
To be clear, while Roice did protest the certification of the vote, she did not technically take part in the insurrection — she did not storm the Capitol. After a neighbor saw Roice in a photo at the Capitol on January 6th, she told the FBI, and the FBI interviewed Roice and cleared her of any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, Baldwin direct messaged Roice after seeing the photo, and they had the following exchange:
Baldwin: “When I sent the $ for your late brother, out of real respect for his service to this country, I didn’t know you were a January 6th rioter.”
Roice: “Protesting is perfectly legal in the country and I’ve already had my sit down with the FBI. Thanks, have a nice day!”
Baldwin: “I don’t think so. Your activities resulted in the unlawful destruction of government property, the death of a law enforcement officer, an assault on the certification of the presidential election. I reposted your photo. Good luck.”
Baldwin subsequently reposted Roice’s photo to his 2.4 million Instagram followers and called her an “insurrectionist.” In turn, Roice received several nasty messages like “Get raped and die, worthless c—- [kiss emoji]. Your brother got what he deserved.” (Liberals can be terrible people, too!) Meanwhile, in the comments, Baldwin continued to call her a rioter and insurrectionist.
Roice, her sister, and the widow, Jiennah are now all suing Baldwin for $25 million over his direct messages and the decision to publicly share his belief that Roice took part in the rioting. The family claims that “Baldwin’s comments were false, outrageous, defamatory, irresponsible, vindictive and caused - and continue to cause — plaintiffs severe emotional distress. Instead of being able to focus on grieving LCPL McCollum’s death and raising his newborn daughter, plaintiffs and their family are now fearful for their lives.”
This is where the formula comes in. To prove defamation, the family must prove that Baldwin made 1) a false statement purporting to be fact; 2) that the statement was published or communicated to a third person; 3) there was fault amounting to at least negligence; and 4) there were damages or some harm caused to the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.
The McCollum family are not public figures, so they do not have to prove that Baldwin acted with “actual malice” nor that he made the statement with “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” They only have to prove that the statement was false.
Let’s skip the first element, for now. So far as I know, the direct messages were not “published” or communicated to a third party, at least until they were made public by the lawsuit. Re-posting an Instagram post might not count, either, even if he does have 2.4 million followers because he only republished what Roice had already published herself. However, he added that she was an “insurrectionist” and “rioter” and continued to do so in the comments. So, yes: Those were new comments that he “published.”
Were there damages or some harm? Vile threats made to a grieving family might constitute harm, although that might be a stretch. Baldwin didn’t make the vile statements; others in his mentions did, and if I could sue every time someone on social media called me something terrible or sent me an email hoping that harm would come to me or my family, I’d be a very wealthy man. But, perhaps, Baldwin could have reasonably predicted that people are awful; he’s very familiar with social media, after all.
Assuming, however, that the McCollum family can overcome elements two and four, they would have to prove that Baldwin was negligent. Legally speaking, the family must prove that Baldwin failed to behave with the level of care that “someone of ordinary prudence” would have exercised under the same circumstances. Look, y’all: We live in a new world of social media, where the definition of “someone of ordinary prudence” is debatable. When someone does something we don’t like on social media, many people of “ordinary prudence” repost those messages or tweets with nasty messages like “F**k off!” When Baldwin reposted Roice’s Instagram post, a lot of people “of ordinary prudence” for someone who is political and very online made rude comments. Was Baldwin “negligent.” I don’t know. He may have been a dick, but who among us hasn’t been a dick to someone online?
So, let’s go back to the first element: Did Baldwin make a false statement purporting to be fact? He called her “an insurrectionist” and a “rioter” based on a photo of Roice protesting at the Capitol on the day of an insurrection. Is that a false statement? I mean, I guess technically, according to the FBI, who cleared her of any wrongdoing. I suppose we wouldn’t call someone standing next to a fire and celebrating the destruction of a building an arsonist, but we might call them an asshole, so maybe if Baldwin had called her an “asshole” instead of an “insurrectionist,” the family would have no leg to stand on.
And this, folks, is why lawyers make the big money. There is a simple formula, but it’s up to the lawyers to argue whether or not the facts fit the elements of the tort. A good lawyer — and Baldwin can certainly afford them — would probably knock this out of court in 10 minutes.