Federal Court Shuts Down IMDb-Targeting 'Anti-Ageism' Law Permanently
from the blunt-end-for-stupid-law dept
In the annals of stupid legislation, California’s attempt to fight ageism at Hollywood studios by targeting third-party websites and using the First Amendment as a doormat will secure a prominent place in infamy. Rising from the ashes of a failed lawsuit brought by an actress who claimed IMDb cost her untold amounts of wealth by publishing her age, the law basically said IMDb couldn’t publish facts on its website. Those pushing the legislation included the Screen Actors Guild, which apparently doesn’t have the spine to stand up to studios and target them for discriminating against actors and actresses.
Last year, IMDb secured a temporary injunction against the state of California, forbidding it from enforcing the law while the courts sorted out its constitutionality. That day has arrived. A federal court has declared the law unconstitutional and permanently blocked California from going after IMDb because Hollywood producers participate in discriminatory hiring. (h/t Jacob Gershman)
The decision [PDF] is short. It takes only six pages for the district court to destroy the state’s arguments. First, it tells the state it’s not going to apply a lower First Amendment standard of scrutiny to its awful law.
California and SAG-AFTRA provide no reason to apply a lower level of judicial scrutiny to the statute than was applied at the preliminary injunction stage. AB 1687 cannot properly be considered a regulation of voluntary commercial contracts rather than a speech restriction. Upon the request of a subscriber to IMDbPro, the law requires IMDb to remove age-related information from its public-facing website, IMDb.com, regardless of the source of the information on IMDb.com. The law expressly contemplates that it will impact not just information obtained pursuant to a contractual relationship, but also information provided by members of the public…
That’s just the court’s warm-up. It gets worse for the state from there.
[A]s California concedes, AB 1687 is not properly considered a generally applicable law; moreover, its effects on expression are far from incidental. AB 1687 is a direct restriction on speech. The law prohibits certain speakers from publishing certain truthful information – information that, in many instances, is supplied by members of the public – because of concerns that a third party might use that information to engage in illegal conduct.
The court also points out the targeted speech isn’t commercial speech, which receives fewer Constitutional protections.
Nor can AB 1687 plausibly be characterized as a commercial speech restriction. The speech at issue is factual information about entertainment professionals, conveyed – at least on IMDb.com – in a manner unconnected to any commercial transaction… The fact that IMDb has a financial interest in people’s reliance on IMDb.com for information doesn’t transform the age-related information restricted by AB 1687 into commercial speech.
The court also has some choice words for the Screen Actors Guild, which really should have known better than to have supported this censorial garbage.
SAG-AFTRA contends that publication of facts about the ages of people in the entertainment industry can be banned because these facts “facilitate” age discrimination – an argument that, if successful, would enable states to forbid publication of virtually any fact. There is no support in controlling case law for the proposition that a state may ban publication of facts to impede a third party’s possible reliance on those facts to engage in discrimination.
If SAG really wants to do something about discrimination, it should use its collective weight to make changes in the studio system, rather than enable censorship and threaten the same protections that allow movies to be made without government interference.
It’s a stupid law and the district court does everything but directly call it stupid during the course of its six-page decision. It points out the state has plenty of ways of curbing age discrimination that don’t involve walking all over the First Amendment. The fact that previous legislative efforts have failed is no reason for the state to decide the publication of facts must be banned. The court also notes neither the state nor SAG have shown any causal link between IMDb’s publication of actors’ ages and age discrimination in Hollywood studios. Even if IMDb’s publications make it “easier” for studio heads to discriminate (a point the court does not concede), the statutory remedy deployed by California would only force IMDb to remove age info at the request of subscribers, which means there would still be plenty of data available for studios to “misuse.”
It’s a resounding loss for both entities — both of which should have known the law was destined for the federal court chopping block while it was still in its infancy. The fact the law even exists seems to indicate both the State of California and the Screen Actors Guild are too cowardly to confront Hollywood studio execs directly.
Finally, the court calls the state and SAG out for being so jacked up about punishing IMDb that they can’t even recognize the sort of discrimination they’re dealing with.
Although the previously-discussed flaws in the statute are more than enough to strike it down, one final point bears mention. The defendants seem to misunderstand the problem they hope to address through AB 1687. The legislative materials repeatedly cite an article discussing “[t]he commonplace practice of casting a much younger female against a much older male” and lamenting the significant underrepresentation of women in leading roles and in directors’ chairs. The defendants describe this as a problem of “age discrimination.” While that may be accurate on some level, at root it is far more a problem of sex discrimination. Movie producers don’t typically refuse to cast an actor as a leading man because he’s too old for the leading woman; it is the prospective leading woman who can’t get the part unless she’s much younger than the leading man. TV networks don’t typically jettison male news anchors because they are perceived as too old; it is the female anchors whose success is often dependent on their youth. This is not so much because the entertainment industry has a problem with older people per se. Rather, it’s a manifestation of the industry’s insistence on objectifying women, overvaluing their looks while devaluing everything else. The defendants barely acknowledge this, much less explain how a law preventing one company from posting age-related information on one website could discourage the entertainment industry from continuing to objectify and devalue women. If the government is going to attempt to restrict speech, it should at least develop a clearer understanding of the problem it’s trying to solve.
That’s some fine bench-slapping. Hopefully, it will deter the state and its SAG helpers from rushing back to the legislative halls to take another stab at crafting more First Amendment-violating stupidity.