The release of a tape taken of Mel Gibson in Costa Rica by the son of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has prompted a threat of a defamation lawsuit by the actor. Not only did Eszterhas release the tape secretly made by his son during an argument with Gibson, he accused Gibson of not wanting to proceed with the film “The Maccabees” because he hates Jews.
The tirade by Gibson was taped on an iPhone by Eszterhas ‘ 15-year-old son Nick. On the tape, Gibson, 52, is upset that Eszterhas has not moved more quickly on the script for the movie, which tells the story Jewish heroes: “Why don’t I have a first draft of ‘The Maccabees’? What the f**k have you been doing?” Gibson then goes further in attacking Oksana Grigorieva, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his young daughter: “I am earning money for a filthy little c**ksucker who takes advantage of me!”
On its face, it is a bit untoward for a guest to record a host secretly in their home. However, Eszterhas insisted that he released the tape because “Gibson called me a liar. And I also have some reason to believe he’s creating a PR blitz questioning my truthfulness.” While Eszterhas had agreed to do the film with Gibson, he denounced Gibson for “hating Jews” and using “The Maccabees” film project “to deflect continuing charges of anti-Semitism which have dogged you, charges which have crippled your career.” He publicly stated in a letter that “I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason you won’t make ‘The Maccabees’ is the ugliest possible one. You hate Jews.”
A privacy and defamation action would face challenges. Gibson’s claim of an expectation of privacy or that his comments were a protected private fact are undermined by his making the comments to third parties. There was not presumably agreement that such comments would be kept private by the guests.
On defamation, Gibson would collide with the public figure standard requiring a higher level of proof from celebrity to established defamation. The public figure standard was established in Curtis Publishing v. Butts (1967). The case involved a March 23, 1963 edition of The Saturday Evening Post alleging that former University of Georgia football coach Wallace Butts conspired with University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to fix a 1962 football game in Alabama’s favor. In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Warren wrote a concurrence that extended the ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan on public officials to public figures. He found the same reasons for applying the higher standard to public officials as present in cases involving public figures:
[I]t is plain that, although they are not subject to the restraints of the political process, “public figures,” like “public officials,” often play an influential role in ordering society. And surely, as a class, these “public figures” have as ready access as “public officials” to mass media of communication, both to influence policy and to counter criticism of their views and activities. Our citizenry has a legitimate and substantial interest in the conduct of such persons, and freedom of the press to engage in uninhibited debate about their involvement in public issues and events is as crucial as it is in the case of “public officials.” The fact that they are not amenable to the restraints of the political process only underscores the legitimate and substantial nature of the interest, since it means that public opinion may be the only instrument by which society can attempt to influence their conduct.
Gibson would need to show actual malice or a reckless disregard of the truth. He would also face truth as a defense with a likely successful effort to admit his prior anti-semitic ravings.
There is the possibility that the taping violated Costa Rican law, but that would involve pursuing a young boy for a criminal charge — not exactly good optics.
For these reasons, this is one dispute that may be better handled outside of court.