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Crossing the Line: The Definition of a Prankster

The day after a man dived over the barriers and grabbed him, Brad Pitt filed a temporary restraining order against his attacker: Ukrainian Vitalii Sediuk. Pitt was attacked by Sediuk while walking the red carpet with his partner Angelina Jolie at the El Capitan premiere of her film, "Maleficent," in Hollywood. In numerous reports, including Variety, Sediuk was identified as a "prankster." It occurs to me that some journalists don't know the meaning of "prankster" and thus haven't touched on the real legal issues.

My faithful Merriam-Webster, online edition, tells me that a prankster is "a person who plays pranks on other people" and that a prank is "a trick that is done to someone usually as a joke." While initial news reports claimed that the man punched Pitt, Pitt's assessment of the situation was different. He told People: "I was at the end of the line signing autographs, when out the corner of my eye I saw someone stage-diving over the barrier at me. I took a step back; this guy had latched onto my lapels. I looked down and the nutter was trying to bury his face in my crotch, so I cracked him twice in the back of the head—not too hard—but enough to get his attention, because he did let go. I think he was then just grabbing for a hand hold because the guys were on him, and he reached up and caught my glasses."

Pitt's attacker claimed otherwise, saying he just wanted to give Pitt a hug, but who are we to believe? His target is a high profile person who had the grace to try and save the occasion for his partner, Angelina Jolie, and for the fans who lined up for the chance at an autograph. Pitt and Jolie were also with their six children. Kudos to Brad Pitt for pressing charges.

Pitt told People magazine: "I don't mind an exhibitionist, but if this guy keeps it up he's going to spoil it for the fans who have waited up all night for an autograph or a selfie, because it will make people more wary to approach a crowd. And he should know, if he tries to look up a woman's dress again, he's going to get stomped."

Pitt was referring to an incident that the Huffington Post characterized as an "inappropriate prank" (USA Today prefers "outlandish pranks") when Sediuk committed sexual harassment by attempting to look up America Ferrera's dress. Ferrera wore a lovely white dress that had a deep plunging neckline, and she was posing with other "How to Train Your Dragon 2" actors on the red carpet with arms linked when this assault took place from behind.

Earlier this year, Sediuk buried his face in Leonardo DiCaprio's groin at a film festival in Santa Barbara. He also grabbed Bradley Cooper around the legs in January of this year. At the "Men in Black 3" red carpet in Moscow in 2012, Sediuk attempted to forcibly kiss star Will Smith. Smith asked him "What is your problem?" Sediuk has made it a practice to physically invade the personal space of celebrities at major events and touch them inappropriately. A person who has sexually touched someone who has not consented has committed sexual assault. Sediuk has committed sexual assault in public and yet he is still called a prankster.

Celebrities are routinely objectified. Tim McGuire, 64, of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication noted in his McGuire on Media blog (2 February 2011) "Objectifying celebrities and other humans becoming huge journalism sin" that some people do not look at celebrities as people. McGuire's blog entry notes that during his ethics class, while he was trying to make his standard point to follow the Golden Rule and consider if the students would want certain information published about their lives, one student finally blurted out the truth: "Well celebrities aren't really human beings!" The student demurred somewhat saying that his statement was "a little facetious, but not very."

Another student, a woman, ventured, "Many celebrities have become 'brands' and we don't really owe brands the same duties we owe human beings." McGuire points out that branded companies aren't under the same scrutiny as celebrities and that objectifying happens a lot from "poor" to "illegal immigrants" to whatever group is the other.

Too often that other group is women. You can see that from the #YesAllWomen Twitter discussion. The accounts varied from the tepid New Yorker article by Sasha Weiss who complained about a man being inspired to masturbate in the subway after seeing her with her girlfriend and how she did nothing (NYPD makes it easy to report crime like public indecency and lewd behavior with an app) to a heated but intelligent consideration by Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday, who was then taken to task by Seth Rogen.

Assault and battery, including sexual assault and battery, isn't funny. It isn't a prank to be laughed off. It doesn't matter if it happens to a man or woman or a celebrity; it is a crime. Battery, the intentional touching that is harmful or offensive and without the consent of the victim, is not a joke or a trick and it shouldn't be seen as such in real life with women or celebrities or in the movies. #YesAllWomen is about how assault and battery and harassment are a normal occurrence for American women and for many women in other countries, but how normal doesn't mean acceptable, legal or funny.

Let's stop saying things like "boys will be boys" or it's just a joke or a prank. Invading someone's space, invading someone's privacy, invading someone's physical person is an assault on a person's dignity. I doubt that the 5-foot-1 America Ferrera is laughing about having the 6-foot-2 Sediuk attempting to get a peek at her panties. Brad Pitt filed a temporary restraining order and his attacker was jailed for two days before pleading guilty to battery and unlawful actions at a sporting or entertainment event. His sentence was three years on probation plus a year of counseling, community service and a restraining order preventing him from being at Hollywood events.

Will therapy help Sediuk? It didn't help Elliot Rodger. Sediuk claims he isn't violent and that police reports that he struck Pitt are "something that hurts not only me, but my family."  From his perspective, celebrities should be thankful for his actions because it shows that events require better security. He also claims he won't give up pranks and wants to work as a journalist, perhaps appearing on a reality show.

By abusing celebrities, does Sediuk make himself superior to one object of his desire and yet obtain another object of his desire: reflected celebrity? The reality is Sediuk is a predatory man who wants to entertain and gain fame through sexual harassment and assault and battery, acts committed mostly on men but always on celebrities. The reality is we need to clearly define legal and illegal behavior and what pranks are. By dismissing assault and battery as pranks inappropriate or outlandish—we are dismissing the violation of a person and linguistically dissuading victims from pursuing their rights under criminal and civil law. And by labeling assault and battery as pranks, journalists and movie makers are committing the sin of diminishing the humanity of a person in favor of objectifying them, and siding with the criminal aggressor instead of the victim.

(Photo credit: The Guardian).

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