A group of First Amendment scholars along with two free speech advocacy groups have weighed in Internet Movie Database’s constitutional challenge to a new age-discrimination law in California, urging a federal judge to throw this law out … and now.
The nine scholars, employed by various universities around the country like Boston College and UCLA, claim that a law requiring IMDb to remove ages of actors listed on the site not only wouldn’t help curb age discrimination, but that even if it did, the U.S. Constitution simply wouldn’t allow it.
“Truthful facts, like many things, may be wrongly used by some. This does not mean the truth should be withheld from all.
“Allowing the government to prohibit IMDb’s public site from reporting the age information of entertainment professionals in fear of age discrimination would be an unprecedented, unconstitutional act. Worse, it could lead to prohibitions on reporting many other truthful facts by many other sources.
“This case is not a close call.”
The scholars were joined by the First Amendment Lawyers Association as well as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to file what is known as a “friend of the court” brief. While the scholars and organizations are not parties to the lawsuit IMDb filed against the California government, they can inject their opinion into the court record if a judge allows it.
The First Amendment Lawyers, according to the filing, represent 200 attorneys in North America who represent free expression as protected by the First Amendment. The Reporters Committee is an unincorporated association of reporters and editors who work to defend First Amendment rights and freedom of information interests of the news media.
The group have taken the same position as IMDb – that the law, known as California Assembly Bill 1687, not only unfairly targets one information outlet, but is in essence censoring factual information. That’s something, the group says, courts over the decades have prevented from happening, even if the information obtained through public sources could be used in a negative way.
It’s a tough balance for the courts to have to take – the public might have a right to know, but not everything should be public. Yet, any attempt to start censoring some factual information could just turn into a massive avalanche of other censorship, the group said.
“Unless A.B. 1687 is struck down, there will be virtually no limit to the government’s ability to suppress the reporting of truthful facts by other sources, including the print media.”
“If A.B. 1687 is upheld, the California legislature could be given a blank check to enact other laws suppressing truthful information in the name of preventing unlawful conduct. Such laws could reach nearly any source of information, including the print media.
“For example, the legislative history of A.B. 1687 shows that, in addition to age discrimination, the legislature was also concerned about sex discrimination against women. If the government can suppress age information in fear of age discrimination, then surely the government can suppress sex information in the fear of sex discrimination.”
“The list of facts that could be suppressed in the name of preventing discrimination is limitless.”
The group adds that we are in an age where social media has helped provide a platform for false news. If the government can suppress the reporting of “truthful facts,” it will be impossible to fight false news.
California has responded to the suit, claiming sovereign immunity. Under those laws, state governments can’t be sued unless they consent to it. However, courts have ruled in the past that sovereign immunity does not apply when challenging the constitutionality of a law, so if IMDb’s challenge holds up to court scrutiny, it’s unlikely that defense will hold water.
This past week, Hollywood’s largest actors union SAG-AFTRA has demanded to be included in the lawsuit as a defendant. The union and its president, Gabrielle Carteris, have been strong advocates of the law as a way to combat rampant age discrimination in Hollywood.
Judge Vince Chhabria has yet to rule on that motion. However, a hearing is scheduled for Feb. 16 in San Francisco not just on these issues, but also on IMDb’s request for an emergency temporary injunction that would delay the law’s enforcement while the case makes its way through court.
The law, however, went into effect Jan. 1 after being signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
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