On the self-proclaimed “greatest night in television,” the 2022 Oscars, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock made a comment about being excited for “G.I. Jane 2” to point out Pinkett’s shaved head, which triggered Smith’s response to defend her honor. After this tumultuous moment, fans are left wondering:
- Can he do that?
- Is he going to get arrested?
1. Can He Do That?
If your question of “can he do that,” relates to whether the law allows a person to use physical force to defend another in response to a joke or insult, the answer is no, in Minnesota. Although California and Minnesota have different criminal laws, as criminal statutes vary state by state, there is a general premise underscoring the policy of defenses to assault (simple assault or assault and battery in California) in criminal law: mere words are not enough to condone physical force against another person. The policy of this is clear and can date back to our childhoods with the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
In Minnesota, the “defense of others” defense means that the person, in this case Smith, must have used reasonable force to help another person, in this case Pinkett, in resisting an offense against the person, in this case Rock. So far so good, right? Unfortunately, the “offense against the person” has to be an offense of a physical nature with the potential to cause bodily harm, not a joke or insult.
Therefore, although Rock’s joke about Pinkett may have been distasteful given her struggle with alopecia and could emotionally hurt her, the fact that the joke was words and had no potential of physical harm, means Smith had no rational legal basis to defend Pinkett by slapping Rock.
2. Is He Going to Get Arrested?
In considering if Smith could be arrested for his action on national television, we will have to place him in the light of a regular person (because we all know celebrities are essentially “untouchable” from the arm of the law).
In Minnesota, based on Smith’s actions, he would be charged with a Misdemeanor 5th Degree Assault under Minnesota Statute § 609.224, subd., 1(2) because Smith “intentionally inflicted…bodily harm upon another,” and we have witnesses to corroborate that version of the facts, to say the least. Since the crime did not occur in Minnesota, however, he would never be charged in this state.
In California, where the crime occurred, Smith could be charged with a Misdemeanor Simple Assault under California Penal Code 240 PC because he committed “an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another.” The Los Angeles Police Department would likely have probable cause to arrest for suspicion of this crime based on the Oscars footage; however, LAPD has stated that no police report has been filed since the incident, which indicates that Rock likely does not want to pursue such charges against Smith.
Although these answers cover the culpability Will Smith could have in the criminal lens of the law, this by no means covers the liability he could have in the civil lens of the law. Chris Rock could bring a tort claim against him for Assault and Battery and seek damages for any injury he faced from being slapped on national television, whether that be physical injury, emotional distress, or damage to his reputation.