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What Should Happen to Will Smith?

It has now been over two weeks since millions witnessed the slap of the century. Actor Will Smith vacated his seat at the Oscars, strolled across the stage up to comedian Chris Rock, and slapped him, hard, across the face, on national television. Rock demonstrated tremendous restraint in not retaliating in any way, other than to say:

“Wow! Will Smith just slapped the sh#@%$ out of me!”

Smith wasn’t finished. As Rock started to announce the next award, he was heckled and threatened by Smith, who advised Rock to keep Smith’s wife’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) name out of his “fu#$%^ing mouth.”

Since the incident was witnessed live and downloaded afterward by millions, I have received numerous inquiries from readers. Should Will Smith be prosecuted for his behavior?

Others have asked a similar, yet equally important question: If I was attending the live performance of a comedian, rose from my seat, climbed the stairs, walked across the stage (assuming that no one stopped me on my way up the stairs) and slapped the performer, would I be arrested and charged with a crime? We all know the probable answer to this one.

I will respectfully, pass on the first question. I once wrote that Jussie Smollett was tried and convicted in the press. The fact that he ultimately got convicted by a jury does not alter my opinion that all of us are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. We, the people, and that includes the press, have no business deciding whether someone should be charged, prosecuted, or convicted of a crime.

Whether or not Smith is charged is not up to you, me, the press, or anyone other than the local prosecutor and Chris Rock, who has yet to press charges against Smith. Rock, by the way, is the silent hero of this story—his restraint was remarkable. And Smith’s behavior has caused more public scrutiny of his wife’s hair, insensitivity to her illness, and jokes about the couple than anything Chris Rock ever did to or said about the two celebrities.

Every state has its own criminal code and local definitions of criminal conduct. In California, “battery” is defined by California Penal Code Section 242 as “any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.”

Whether or not this causes injury is not relevant to this determination. Rock appeared stunned and has recently joked that he “just got his hearing back,” but I doubt he suffered any long-term injury other than shock and disappointment at Smith’s behavior. The lessor crime, simple assault, is defined by California Penal Code Section 240, which applies when someone willfully does something that results in applying force to another individual, such that a reasonable person would conclude the conduct will have impact on that individual.

Clear as mud, you say? In layman’s terms, to assault someone, you must place that person in fear of harm. Would Rock be justified in saying he feared bodily harm? He seemed just as surprised as we were. What about provocation? We are allowed to defend ourselves and others. Did Rock provoke the incident?

This, I will answer. Of course, he didn’t provoke Smith’s response. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects free speech, the joke was offensive, but mildly so by Hollywood standards, and nobody deserves to be physically attacked for something they said. We learn this as children, don’t we? Remember ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? While I disagree that words can’t be hurtful, I understand the point of the old saying.

Most entertainment reporters have indicated that Rock is unlikely to press charges. Perhaps that is true. However, it is not always necessary for a victim to press charges or even testify in court to an assault and/or battery. In this case, all that is needed is someone to verify the authenticity of the video, you know, the one seen my millions, maybe billions, all over the world. Smith has admitted some responsibility, issuing a public apology for his behavior. Perhaps, this is not a tough case or call. But, again, it is the local prosecutor’s call, not mine, not yours.

I don’t like seeing people of means get civil and criminal justice breaks that the rest of us never see. By the same token, a celebrity should not be charged with a crime in circumstances where an ordinary citizen would not be charged.

My only concern in giving Smith a pass (he has already suffered public shame, humiliation, and, probably, damage to his career) on criminal charges is that the pass acts as a precedent to permit others to engage in similar conduct without fear of criminal charges or official reprisal. What kind of message does that send?

That’s my two cents—what do you think?

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