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Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Discrimination Laws And The Will Smith Academy Awards Slap

Everyone who isn't on a desert island with no wifi knows that Will Smith slapped Chris Rock after Chris Rock made fun of Jada Pinkett Smith's alopecia. Lots of folks want blood. I hear many demanding that Will Smith's Best Actor Oscar be rescinded. Some say he should be expelled from the Academy. Others say he shouldn't be allowed to attend any more awards.

So let's look at the Academy's actual rules, and how they've handled similar incidents. Here's the rule that Mr. Smith violated:

In addition to achieving excellence in the field of motion picture arts and sciences, members must also behave ethically by upholding the Academy’s values of respect for human dignity, inclusion, and a supportive environment that fosters creativity. There is no place in the Academy for people who abuse their status, power or influence in a manner that violates recognized standards of decency. The Academy is categorically opposed to any form of abuse, harassment or discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, or nationality. The Board of Governors believes that these standards are essential to the Academy’s mission and reflective of our values.

The rules go on to say that, in case of a violation, the Board can consider any discipline permitted in their bylaws, including suspension or expulsion. The rules came out in response to #MeToo. It's notable that none of Harvey Weinstein's or Kevin Spacey's awards were rescinded. In fact, to my knowledge no actor has ever had their award rescinded.

First of all, Chris Rock also violated the rule, since he was harassing Jada Pinkett Smith on the basis of a disability, namely, alopecia. And before you tell me it isn't a disability, I assure you that it can be. For those demanding that Mr. Smith be arrested, it is to Mr. Rock's credit that he has declined to prosecute.

Second, there are many, many incidents that have occurred over the years of actors getting into actual fistfights. Not one was subjected to any discipline by the Academy that I've ever heard of. So possibly a private reprimand, but that's it. Here are 15 of the fistfights, a majority between white males. Here's a list of 9 fistfights, also a majority involving white males. So a single slap is a minor incident compared to the fistfights. Any discipline meted out more severe than a reprimand is going to be subject to discrimination claims.

Finally, if you said that Ted Cruz should have punched Donald Trump when Trump insulted Cruz's wife, sit down and shut up. And don't make me check your social media posts. You know who you are. And I bet some Academy Board of Governors members have some posts in that regard. I hope Mr. Smith's lawyers are searching those posts right now just in case.

In sum, yes, Will Smith violated the Academy's standards of conduct (as did Chris Rock). But his discipline should be proportionate to similar actions by non-Black actors and not a knee-jerk public execution. 

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I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.