Alec Baldwin Vents on Ellen and Stern Shows After Parking Spot Imbroglio: Did His Assertions in the Interviews Constitute Actionable Defamation?

This was originally posted on the SGR blog.

Alec Baldwin is famous for his stage and screen accomplishments and Trump cameos on SNL- but he is also (like Paris Hilton) “famous for being famous”– because his name is always in the news. And, as a recent case illustrates, Baldwin once again became “newsworthy” because of a defamation suit for statements he made in television interviews about a mid-town Manhattan parking space fracas for which he pled guilty to a low-level offense (a decision in the slander suit coming shortly after his celebrity/actor/yoga instructor/podcaster wife, Hilaria, gave birth to their sixth child in seven+ years).

Wojciech Cieszkowski claimed he was verbally and physically assaulted by the actor Alec Baldwin over a parking space. According to Cieskowski, after he parked his car in a public space on the street, Baldwin approached him, shouted at him, and accused Cieskowski of stealing his parking spot. Cieskowski walked toward the muni-meter, and Baldwin followed Cieskowski and continued to yell at him. When approaching the meter, Baldwin shoved Cieskowski in the chest and then struck Cieskowski in the left jaw.

As a result of the incident with Cieskowski, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charged Baldwin with attempted assault in the third degree and harassment in the second degree. On January 23, 2019, Baldwin pleaded guilty to harassment in the second degree.

Following his plea, Baldwin appeared on several talk shows and discussed the incident. Specifically, on February 4, 2019, Baldwin appeared on “The Ellen Show” and said: “Did I have an argument with the guy? Yeah. I thought he was going to run my wife over with his car when he was stealing my parking spot.” On March 27, 2019, Baldwin appeared on “The Howard Stern Show” and said: “[W]hen he aggressively takes this parking space, which was not the end of the world, I think he was going to hit my wife and my son. . . . I thought what he did was impolite, bordering on dangerous. He didn’t walk up to me and say, `Excuse me. I’ve been waiting here. I’d like to take this space.’ He just went zip! — really fast, and really aggressive.” 

Cieskowski alleged causes of action for assault; battery; attorneys’ fees and costs; and (4) slander per se. Baldwin’s moved to dismiss the claim for slander per se.

Defamation is the making of a false statement about a person that tends to expose the plaintiff to public contempt, ridicule, aversion, or disgrace, or induce an evil opinion of him in the minds of right-thinking persons, and to deprive him of his friendly intercourse in society. The elements are a false statement, published without privilege or authorization to a third party; constituting fault as judged by, at a minimum, a negligence standard; and which cause special harm or constitute defamation per se.

The falsity of a published statement is key to a defamation claim because only a statement that purports to convey facts about the plaintiff is actionable. Opinions, false or not, libelous or not, are constitutionally protected and may not be the subject of private damage actions, provided that the facts supporting the opinions are set forth. A statement of “pure opinion,” which is supported by the facts upon which the statement is based, is protected, no matter how vituperative or unreasonable it may be. Rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets, and lusty and imaginative expression, imprecise language, and an unusual setting which to the reasonable observer that no actual facts were being conveyed about an individual are not actionable. And loose, figurative, or hyperbolic statements, even if deprecating the plaintiff, are not actionable. 

Factors to consider in determining whether a statement constitutes fact or nonactionable opinion are: whether the specific language had a precise meaning which was readily understood; whether the statements were capable of being proven true or false; and whether either the full context of the communication in which the statement appeared or the broader social context and surrounding circumstances were such as to signal readers or listeners that what was being read or heard was likely to be opinion, not fact.

A viable slander claim requires allegations of special damages, i.e., economic or pecuniary loss, unless the claim is slander per se. Slander per se is one where the alleged false statement charges the plaintiff with a serious crime, tends to injure the plaintiff in his or her trade, business, or profession; imputes to the plaintiff a loathsome disease, or imputes unchastity to a woman. But not every charge of unlawful behavior is slanderous per se. There are many minor offenses that have a criminal element but do not constitute a serious crime.

Cieskowski argued that the two statements on the “Ellen” and “Howard Stern” shows were slanderous per se. Specifically, the statements made by Baldwin that “I thought he was going to run my wife over with his car when he was stealing my parking spot” and “I think he was going to hit my wife and my son He just went zip! — really fast, and really aggressive” imputed to Cieskowski a serious crime—specifically reckless endangerment and reckless driving.

Not every imputation of unlawful behavior is actionable as slander per se. Statements will fall into one of the four categories of slander per se if the statements are commonly recognized as injurious by their nature and so noxious that the law presumes that pecuniary damages will result. Slander per se includes statements charging a plaintiff with a serious crime, but the law distinguishes between serious and relatively minor offenses, and only statements regarding the former are actionable without proof of damage.

Serious crimes include murder, burglary, larceny, arson, rape, and kidnapping. Other crimes must be those of a very serious nature and not of a minor nature. Traffic violations do not constitute a serious crime in the slander per se context. Crimes of a very serious nature mean crimes that would exclude a person from society. Baldwin’s statements that Cieskowski allegedly drove fast and aggressively did not rise to that level. They constituted everyday words used to describe driving by the public. Crimes articulated as serious are those that have at least a general intent to do harm or demonstrate depravity. Nothing in Baldwin’s statements indicated anything was rising to such a level. Accordingly, Baldwin did not allege that Cieskowski had committed a serious crime for slander per se purposes.

In addition, Baldwin’s use of the words “really fast,” “aggressive,” “zip” and “almost hit/run over my wife and child” were hyperbole. There was no precise meaning to these statements. They were rhetorical illustrations. Further, although Cieskowski was correct that simply putting the words “I thought” before a statement did not convert a statement from fact to opinion, a review of the videos and the transcripts of the two shows demonstrated that Baldwin was describing his impressions, his state of mind, and his thought process during the occurrence. Because Baldwin was describing his own opinion of what he saw, no action for defamation under a slander per se theory was asserted.

Finally, although Cieskowski would have liked that the words used by Baldwin be understood as accusing Cieskowski of recklessness, the word reckless or something similar was not contained in the statements. In fact, Baldwin described the situation as “I thought what he did was impolite, bordering on dangerous.” Being impolite was not accusing someone of recklessness, and, at most, the statements accused Cieskowski of something not “dangerous” but merely “bordering on dangerous.” 

A properly pleaded complaint about slander per se required either a specific crime alleged or a crime that was readily apparent from innuendo. Here, the words stated by Baldwin were not words that accused Cieskowski of a specific crime or ones that were easily understood to accuse him of a crime. They were words of frustration with someone’s driving and. While the words did not necessarily appear favorable to Cieskowski, taking into account their natural meaning, and under all of the circumstances of the case, none of them were such as would expose a person to hatred, contempt or aversion, or to induce an evil or unsavory opinion of Cieskowski]in the minds of a substantial number of the community.

Baldwin’s motion to dismiss the slander per se cause of action was granted.

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