California Claims Sovereign Immunity In IMDb Age Discrimination Suit

By December 12, 2016
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If Internet Movie Database wants to move forward with its lawsuit challenging a California law requiring the popular website to remove birthdates from actor profiles, it may have to prove to a court that such a suit would not violate the U.S. Constitution.

Outgoing California attorney general Kamala Harris answered the lawsuit filed by IMDb claiming the suit violated the Eleventh Amendment – the amendment, passed before California was ever even considered a state, that grants all the American states sovereign immunity. Or, in other words, claiming you can’t sue the government without the government first consenting to it.

IMDb sued California, and specifically Harris – who will soon represent California in the U.S. Senate – claiming the law requiring them to remove actors’ ages as unconstitutional.

“IMDb strongly opposes discrimination in all forms, including age discrimination in casting. But prejudice and bias, not truthful information, are the root causes of discrimination. This law unfairly targets IMDb.com (which appears to be the only public site impacted by the law) and forces IMDb to suppress faction information from public view.

“Moreover, the factual information being suppressed from IMDb is available from many other sources, not least including Wikipedia, Google, Microsoft (Bing) and Apple (Siri). As such, (the law) sets a dangerous and unconstitutional precedent for other general purpose websites and news sources, and should be deeply troubling to all who care about free speech.”

In fact, it could be that very argument that could help IMDb get around the Eleventh Amendment claim made by California. A court case in the 1990s established that sovereign immunity does not apply when a plaintiff complains about violations of either state or the federal constitution. Such court cases should, and do, go on – so IMDb would be burdened to show that California’s law is indeed unconstitutional.

The law came about thanks to former Beverly Hills 90210 actress Gabrielle Carteris who, as president of the Hollywood’s largest actors union, pushed for California to pass a law that would force IMDb to remove ages from its profile pages.

“Age discrimination is a major problem in our industry, and it must be addressed. SAG-AFTRA has been working hard for years to stop the career damage caused by the publication of performers’ dates of birth on online subscription websites used for casting like IMDb.”

IMDb, however, maintains that the portion of its database used by casting agents doesn’t include ages (like the public profile pages do), and that the California law attempts to legislate outside its own boundaries, forcing changes to IMDb that affects is usage not just across the United States, but worldwide.

For her part, Harris also claimed IMDb had no standing to bring such a suit against the government, and that it “fails to present a case or controversy that is ripe for this court’s consideration.”

The lawsuit is still in its very early stages with both sides expected to be ordered into mediation in early January.

No trial date has been set. However, the case has been assigned to San Francisco judge Vince Chhabria, who could allow any trial – if it does happen – to take place in front of the cameras.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael has spent more than 18 years of his way-long journalism career in entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based in New York City.