Court Again Rules That Cable Giants Can't Weaponize The First Amendment
from the no-luck,-try-again dept
Over the last few years, telecom giants have increasingly been trying to claim that pretty much any effort to hold them accountable for their terrible service (or anything else) is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Historically that hasn’t gone so well. For example, courts generally laughed off ISP lawyer claims that net neutrality violated their free speech rights, quite correctly highlighting that ISPs are simply conduits to information, not acting as editors of available speech through their blocking or filtering of available information.
Charter Spectrum, the nation’s second biggest cable operator, has been trying to embrace this argument a lot lately as it fights off state lawsuits for terrible service. It recently tried to use the First Amendment card again in a legal battle with Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios Networks (ESN), which recently accused Charter of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1866 by refusing to carry TV channels run by the African-American-owned ESN.
While Charter tried to have the suit dismissed by claiming that the First Amendment prohibits such claims because an ISP enjoys “editorial discretion,” the ruling (pdf) by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit didn’t agree. The court noted that while ISPs and cable companies do enjoy some First Amendment protection, it doesn’t apply here, just like it didn’t apply in the net neutrality fight:
“As part of its defense, Charter had told the court that by choosing which channels to carry, the company was engaging in a form of editorial discretion protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, it said, the court would have to use a stricter standard to evaluate Entertainment Studios? claim of a legal violation ? a standard that might result in the claim being rejected.
The Ninth Circuit said otherwise, saying that just because Charter engages in corporate speech when it selects which channels to carry does not ?automatically? require the court to use the tougher standard.
As a result, the court is letting the case move forward. For its part, ESN’s discrimination complaint alleges that its complaint is based on more than just having its channel withheld from the company’s cable lineup:
“The opinion on Charter?s motion to dismiss also marks a victory for the 25-year-old programming firm founded by comedian Byron Allen, which bought the Weather Channel in March and accused Charter executives in court of hurling racist insults at Allen and other black Americans in numerous encounters. In one alleged instance, Charter chief executive Tom Rutledge called Allen, who is black, ?boy? at an industry conference and advised him to change his behavior, according to court documents. In another alleged example, the court said, Charter?s senior executive in charge of programming, Allan Singer, approached a group of black protesters outside Charter?s offices to tell them to ?get off of welfare.”
Consumer groups like Public Knowledge were quick to applaud the ruling, happy to see another effort to “weaponize” the First Amendment shot down. The district court will now proceed to determining whether Charter did engage in racially discriminatory conduct.
“Holding us accountable for absolutely anything violates our free speech” rights was historically something telecom lobbyists often just throw at a wall in a bid to see if it sticks. But these efforts have escalated in the last few years. For example FCC staffers under Ajit Pai, at this point nearly indistinguishable from big telecom lobbying efforts, have even tried to claim that community-run broadband (an organic, voter-approved response to terrible service) is a threat to free speech, a charge there’s absolutely zero supporting evidence for.
It’s a legal argument giant ISPs have also embraced more recently in large part because they hope that new Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who bought into some of these arguments during previous net neutrality battles, will ultimately be a deciding vote should many of these battles wind their way to the Supreme Court. So far, however, these efforts haven’t worked out all that well, and while that’s not likely to change when the net neutrality court fight kicks off next February, it could be an important issue should that fight make its way to the highest court in the land.