Actor Alec Baldwin has asked a judge to throw out a federal defamation lawsuit filed by the Wyoming family of a U.S. Marine killed in the line of duty. The case brings together violence, the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol, Donald Trump, and blue-check social media.
According to the case file, Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum was killed by a suicide bomber at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021. At the time, his wife Jiennah McCollum had been pregnant with the couple’s child, and an online fundraiser was launched to raise money for their expenses. Baldwin (who did not know the family but saw the fundraiser posted on Instagram) contacted the soldier’s sister, Roice McCollum, to arrange to make a $5,000 donation, which Baldwin then made.
In Jan. 2022, Roice McCollum posted a photo to her Instagram captioned “Throwback.” It was “instantly recognizable” as the Jan. 6, 2021 siege at the U.S. Capitol — at which Roice had been present. Baldwin saw the post.
“Are you the same woman that I sent the $ to for your sister’s husband who was killed during the Afghanistan exit”? Baldwin asked, according to the case file.
Roice confirmed that she was indeed Rylee’s sister.
The two then exchanged several direct messages in which Baldwin expressed disapproval of Roice’s participation in the siege; Roice defended her actions. A portion of the exchange was detailed in the lawsuit:
Baldwin: “When I sent the $ for your late brother, out of real respect for his service to this country, I didn’t know you were a January 6th rioter.”
Roice: “Protesting is perfectly legal in the country and I’ve already had my sit down with the FBI. Thanks, have a nice day!”
Baldwin: “I don’t think so. Your activities resulted in the unlawful destruction of government property, the death of a law enforcement officer, an assault on the certification of the presidential election. I reposted your photo. Good luck.”
Baldwin then re-posted Roice’s photo on his own Instagram feed, along with a caption reading:
I did some research. I found, on IG, that this woman is the brother [sic] of one of the men who was killed. I offered to send her sister-in-law some $ as a tribute to her late brother, his widow and their child. Which I did. As a tribute to a fallen soldier. Then I find this. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Days later, Roice filed a complaint against Baldwin in which she was joined by her sister Cheyenne McCollum and her sister-in-law Jiennah McCollumn as plaintiffs. The plaintiffs sued in federal court in Wyoming for defamation, invasion of privacy, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In their complaint, the plaintiffs paint a negative picture of Baldwin, claiming:
BALDWIN has a long history of combative behavior with the press, the law, his ex-wife, his family, his children, politicians, and virtually anyone who crosses him. He has assaulted multiple people physically and verbally and is as well-known for his impulsivity and quick temper as he is for any role he has played.
By contrast, the complaint characterizes the McCollum family as stalwart patriots who protested on Jan. 6 “in a peaceful, law-abiding manner,” without “support[ing] or condon[ing] the rioting that erupted.”
The complaint points out that Roice was only contacted by the FBI after an unhappy neighbor reported her to authorities and that she was never charged with any crimes.
The complaint contrasts Roice McCollum, “a politically conscious 22-year-old” who was simply “exercis[ing] her First Amendment rights of free assembly and free speech,” with Baldwin, a millionaire and “very outspoken liberal Democrat who routinely voices his despisal [sic] of the Republican party and, in particular, President Trump to his supporters via social media and anywhere else he can find an audience.”
The plaintiffs also pointed out that Baldwin’s use of social media was ironic given that he “has been the victim of the social media mob” over his wife Hilaria Baldwin‘s use of “a false Spanish accent.” As for the fallout from Baldwin’s posts about McCollum, the complaint alleges that Roice received hundreds of hateful messages, including one that said, “Get raped and die, worthless c*nt (kiss emoji). Your brother got what he deserved.”
In court documents filed Monday, Baldwin asked that the case be dismissed on a number of grounds.
“This case is not about whether Lance Corporal Rylee McCollum is an American hero,” Baldwin’s lawyers wrote. “He clearly is.”
“It is not about whether the McCollum family has sacrificed for our country,” the filling continued. “They clearly have.”
Baldwin first argued that the Wyoming court lacks jurisdiction over him as he has no connection to Wyoming. He next moved on to making several arguments about the substance of the McCollumn’s lawsuit. He contended that any statements he made were “protected opinion on a matter of public concern” and that any private messages between himself and Roice are not sufficiently public to be defamatory. He also argued that the McCollum plaintiffs are “limited public figures” and that, accordingly, actual malice is a necessary component to any successful defamation claim. Furthermore, Baldwin argued that he owed no duty to the plaintiffs to support a negligence action and that his behavior falls short of the “extreme and outrageous conduct” required for an emotional distress claim.
Per Baldwin’s motion to dismiss:
In sum, Baldwin expressed his opinion about a matter of public concern. Several others have expressed the same opinion as Baldwin about January 6. Some have expressed the opposite opinion. And there are opinion sections of major news outlets debating whether January 6 was an insurrection. There’s even a committee of the U.S. Congress investigating this issue. Should we open the courthouse for claims against everyone who has publicly referred to January 6 as an “insurrection”—the Democratic Party, some members of the Republican Party, Senator McConnell, President Biden, nearly every major news organization, and more? Would this case exist if Baldwin weren’t a well-known actor? Would Plaintiffs be asking for $25 million? No, clearly not. This is a political dispute masquerading as a lawsuit, motivated further by money. The public square—not this Court—is the proper place to debate Alec Baldwin’s opinion.
To succeed on their defamation claim, the plaintiffs would need to prove that Baldwin made a false statement of fact that caused them financial harm. At the motion-to-dismiss phase, the court will not make findings of fact as to Baldwin’s social media posts. Rather, the judge will evaluate the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and rule on whether the case may proceed to the discovery phase.
Dennis Postiglione, an attorney for the plaintiffs, provided the following response when asked for comment by Law&Crime:
“The irony of Baldwin asserting a political free speech defense is astounding. His entire series of posts and the subsequent attacks he caused and stoked against my clients continue to occur to this day. Roice McCollum’s exercise of her own free speech rights is what set Baldwin off. In addition, Roice has asserted multiple Federal and State claims aside from defamation. There are two other family members, Rylee’s other sister and his widow, who were nowhere near D.C. on January 6 with multiple claims against Baldwin. Frankly, the motion is predictable and his arguments were expected. We will file a timely response and believe we will prevail.”
Attorney Luke Nikas, who represents Baldwin, declined to comment; rather, he pointed Law&Crime to the motion to dismiss itself — which has been discussed above and is embedded below.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated from its original version to include comment from counsel.
The motion to dismiss and the original lawsuit are below:
[image via Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images for National Geographic]
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