A California law requiring the Internet Movie Database to remove the birthdates of actors and other Hollywood workers from its website is now on hold after a federal judge in San Francisco granted a preliminary injunction.
But government officials might want to rethink its strategy as the case against Assembly Bill 1687 moves forward – Judge Vince Chhabria has made his position quite clear on where he stands on this issue, and it’s not on the side of the state.
“It’s difficult to imagine how AB 1687 could not violate the First Amendment. The statute prevents IMDb from publishing factual information (information about the ages of people in the entertainment industry) on its website for public consumption. This is a restriction of non-commercial speech on the basis of content.
“Therefore, the burden is on the government to show that the restriction is ‘actually necessary’ to serve a compelling government interest.”
California passed the law last year, which went into effect in January. It restricted IMDb from sharing the birthdates of those who work in the television and film industry in an effort to combat rampant age discrimination in Hollywood. IMDb sued the state claiming the law violated its First Amendment rights, censoring what it called to be factual information like when someone was born.
The state, however, claimed it was simply regulating business contracts – which it has the legal right to do – since the restriction primarily targets IMDb’s subscription service, IMDb Pro. Chhabria, however, outright rejected those claims from the state, adding in his order that “nothing (California officials have) submitted in opposition to the preliminary injunction motions suggests it will be able to” prove AB 1687 is “actually necessary.”
“To be sure, the government has identified a compelling goal – preventing age discrimination in Hollywood. But the government has not shown how AB 1687 is ‘necessary’ to advance that goal. In fact, it’s not clear how preventing one mere website from publishing age information could meaningfully combat discrimination at all.
“And even if restricting publication on this one website could confer some marginal anti-discrimination benefit, there are likely more direct, more effective, and less speech-restrictive ways of achieving the same end.”
The California law was strongly endorsed by Hollywood’s largest acting union, SAG-AFTRA, which even asked to be added as defendants in the lawsuit. California initially responded to the suit claiming sovereign immunity, that IMDb required the consent of the state before it could sue. However, courts have found that sovereign immunity does not apply to constitutional challenges as Chhabria now seems to indicate IMDb has sufficient grounds to make.
The order means that California can no longer enforce AB 1687 while Chhabria is hearing IMDb’s lawsuit. It also suggests that if Chhabria rules the law unconstitutional – which he has made no secret of where he’s leaning in that matter – he would not “stay” the ruling, meaning that he would not delay enforcement of his ruling until after the state appeals his decision.
Chhabria’s order wasn’t a total rebuke of California lawmakers. He did offer some advice, suggesting the state focus more on preventing the website from “misappropriating the data furnished by subscribers” rather than simply banning the publication of birthdays.
The next hearing in this case is scheduled for March 21. The complete order can be found here.
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