Was Christian Bale's Terminator tirade illegal?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 4 2009 6:36 PM

You're Trashing My Scene!

Was Christian Bale's Terminator tirade illegal?

Christian Bale. Click image to expand.
Christian Bale

A recording of Christian Bale's outburst at a cinematographer on the set of Terminator Salvation leaked onto the Internet Monday, causing great embarrassment for the actor and the production studio, Warner Bros. In a three-minute expletive-laced tirade, Bale yells at the director of photography for walking into the frame and threatens to "kick [his] fucking ass." (Audio here; full transcript here.) Is verbal abuse ever illegal?

Yes. The First Amendment protects all kinds of insulting language but not speech that qualifies as "fighting words." In the 1942 case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court defined fighting words as language that creates the threat of immediate physical conflict or that "by [its] very utterance inflict[s] injury." For Bale to be found liable in a civil suit, the plaintiff would first have to establish that the actor's words could easily have led to blows.

Litigious victims of verbal abuse generally sue for either assault or emotional distress. Assault is defined to include a threatening gesture that would lead a reasonable person to fear imminent harmful contact, like pointing a gun and saying, "I'll shoot!" To prove emotional distress, the plaintiff must show that the aggressor's behavior was "outrageous"—defined by one law book as a case "in which the recitation of the facts to an average member of the community would arouse his resentment against the actor, and lead him to exclaim, 'Outrageous!' " Secondly, he must demonstrate that the distress was absolutely unendurable.

Verbal abuse might also be punishable under broad rubrics like "disorderly conduct" or "disturbing the peace." But such statutes generally only apply to public places. In a private setting, like a Hollywood set, there's no public peace to disturb.

Bonus Explainer: Did the leaked audio violate a confidentiality agreement? Almost certainly. Most production companies these days require actors, designers, grips, and everyone else on-set to sign contracts that include confidentiality or nondisclosure agreements. (Sample here.) If the audio of Bale's freakout was leaked to the press by someone who worked on the film, chances are that person was breaching his or her contract. It's also possible the audio leaked after Warner Bros. sent it to their insurance company. (Warner Bros. was concerned Bale might bail.) In that case, the leak would probably violate a confidentiality agreement written into the contract with the insurer. And even if there was no explicit nondisclosure provision, there's a reasonable assumption of privacy in the relationship between insurer and insured that could merit legal action.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Don Herzog of University of Michigan, Stephen Sheppard of Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard, Stephen Solomon of New York University, and Eugene Volokh of University of California, Los Angeles.

Slate V: The Ultimate Celebrity Rant


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.