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Judge Pauses Enforcement of IMDb Actor Age Censorship Law

Variety logo Variety 2/23/2017 Dave McNary
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A federal court judge on Wednesday granted IMDb a preliminary injunction against California’s legislation requiring subscription entertainment database sites to remove an actor’s age, if requested by the actor.

U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria issued the ruling three months after IMDb filed a lawsuit attempting to invalidate the AB 1687 legislation. “It’s difficult to imagine how AB 1687 could not violate the First Amendment,” he said.

The injunction stays the enforcement of the new law. IMDb — a subsidiary of Amazon — had contended in its suit that the law, which applies only to subscription sites such as IMDb Pro, was unconstitutional.

“The statute prevents IMDb from publishing factual information (information about the ages of people in the entertainment industry) on its website for public consumption,” Chhabria wrote in the ruling. “This is a restriction of non-commercial speech on the basis of content.”

SAG-AFTRA, which lobbied for the legislation, said on Wednesday that it was not backing down in a statement from general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland: “We are disappointed that the court has chosen to temporarily halt the State of California’s legal efforts to fully protect its citizens from employment discrimination. We look forward to the upcoming opportunity to present evidence to the Court of how this law will reduce or eliminate the age discrimination facilitated by IMDb.com.”

Crabtree-Ireland also said, “This is an early skirmish in what will be a long-term battle to ensure that entertainment industry workers are granted the same minimum employment protections as all other workers. SAG-AFTRA will continue to fight until we achieve for actors and other entertainment industry professionals, the same rights to freedom from age discrimination in hiring enjoyed by other workers in other industries.”

Legislators were lobbied last year by SAG-AFTRA on the issue, with the performers union contending that the restriction would help combat age discrimination against actors. But the jurist said the state government has the burden to show the restriction is “actually necessary” and has not shown how it will advance the goal of preventing discrimination.

“To be sure, the government has identified a compelling goal – preventing age discrimination in Hollywood,” writes Chhabria. “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 antidiscrimination benefit, there are likely more direct, more effective, and less speech-restrictive ways of achieving the same end.”

Chhabria found that because the law restricts IMDb’s speech rights, the site is suffering “irreparable harm” and issued the injunction to prevent the government from enforcing the law pending the resolution of the suit. He set a case management conference for March 21.

The judge also expressed skepticism that the government would succeed in the suit. “There is an exceedingly strong likelihood that IMDb will prevail in this lawsuit,” he asserted.

“The government has not argued that birthdates or other age-related facts implicate some privacy interest that protects them from public disclosure, and it’s doubtful such an argument would prevail in any event,” he wrote. “The government is highly unlikely to meet this burden, and certainly nothing it has submitted in opposition to the preliminary injunction motion suggests it will be able to do so.”

SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris has contended that she might not have been cast in “Beverly Hills 90210” as high school valedictorian and newspaper editor Andrea Zuckerman had her actual age been known at the time. “Beverly Hills 90210” aired from 1990 to 2000.

SAG-AFTRA filed a motion in January to become a defendant in the suit. The suit was filed against Kamala Harris, who was Attorney General at the time but has been succeeded by Xavier Becerra.

The AARP, which has filed a friend of the court brief in support of Becerra, said Wednesday that it was  disappointed with the court’s ruling.

“This is an early set-back to enjoining California law aimed at preventing age discrimination in the entertainment industry. Age bias is a national problem, and is particularly visible in industries such as advertising and entertainment. In the past decade, we’ve seen progress in Hollywood’s representation of people over 50 on screen, but there is still much work to be done on behalf of older workers—in front of and behind the camera.”

“AARP believes that job seekers should be evaluated on their skills and abilities, not their age. The public has a strong interest in vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination statutes. We continue to hope that the court will ultimately support this important law that can help prevent age discrimination in the hiring process.”

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