Microwave Ovens in “American Hustle” Constitute a Matter of Public Interest

In Brodeur v. Atlas Entm’t, (No. B263379, filed 6/6/16), the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District held statements regarding the safety of microwave ovens in the hit film “American Hustle” constituted a matter of public interest within the meaning of California’s Anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16).

The film, American Hustle, is set in 1978 and uses the reality of a late 1970’s FBI sting operation known as Abscam, as a “talking point”. In Brodeur, Plaintiff Paul Broeduer (“Plaintiff”), a well-known author in the environmental field, filed a lawsuit against Atlas Entertainment and other companies involved in the production of the film (“Defendants”) asserting causes of action for libel, defamation, slander, and false light. Plaintiff asserted certain statements made by Jennifer Lawrence’s character in the film, Rosalyn, misquoted him and damaged his reputation. In the film, Rosalyn causes a new microwave to explode by putting in it a container of food covered in tin foil. In an ensuing argument with her husband, Rosalyn says she read, in a magazine article written by Plaintiff, that a microwave oven “takes all of the nutrition out of our food”. The Defendants filed a special motion to strike Plaintiff’s Complaint pursuant to California’s Anti-SLAPP Statute contending the complaint was based on speech “that is of ‘public interest’ or concerns a person in the ‘public eye’”. The Trial Court denied Defendants’ special motion to strike and Defendants appealed.

On appeal, the Brodeur court reversed and held Rosalyn’s statement regarding microwave ovens was made “in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest” within the meaning of the Anti-SLAPP statute. It reasoned the scope of the term “public interest” was to be construed broadly and relied on Nygard v. Usi-Kerttula (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1027, 1042, which held ‘an issue of public interest” within the meaning of section 425.16 is any issue in which the public is interested”. With this in mind, the Brodeur court held it was clear Plaintiff’s causes of action arose from a protected activity. Not only was Plaintiff, by his own evidence, a public figure, the Court reasoned that the culture of the decade in which the film took place, and the matters of public interest during that decade, was also a matter of public interest. The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the specific conduct forming the basis of his lawsuit was Plaintiff’s alleged comments about microwave radiation, rather than the public interest topic addressed in American Hustle, the Abscam sting operation, and the two were unrelated. Instead, the Court declined “to dissect the creative process”, explaining the microwave scene plainly drew on an issue of public interest in the 1970’s and plaintiff was part of that issue at the time. The Court further noted the public interest in the movie as a whole was undeniable, as it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three Golden Globe awards, including Best Picture – Comedy or Musical.

The Brodeur opinion is a reminder of the Court’s willingness to broadly construe what constitutes a matter of “public interest” as needed to effectuate the purpose of California’s Anti-SLAPP statute.

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July 5, 2016