California Assembly Bill 1678 designed to protect against age discrimination gets tagged by Ninth Circuit on First Amendment grounds: IMDb.com, Inc. v. Becerra

On June 19, 2020 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the content-based restrictions on speech contained within California’s Assembly Bill 1678 was facially unconstitutional because it “does not survive First Amendment scrutiny.”

I feel like if you live outside of glamorous places like California, New York and Florida, you may not be paying attention to laws being pushed by organizations like the Screen Actors Guild aka “SAG,” nevertheless … I try to keep my ear to the ground for cases that involve the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This case happens to raise both issues, although only the First Amendment matter is addressed here.

For those that may be unfamiliar, IBDb.com is an Internet Movie Database which provides a free public website that includes information about movies, television shows, and video games. It also contains information information on actors and crew members in the industry which may contain the subject’s age or date of birth. This is an incredibly popular site, the court opinion noting that as of January of 2017 “it ranked 54th most visited website in the world.” The information on the site is generated by users (just like you and I) but IMDb does employ a “Database Content Team tasked with reviewing the community’s additions and revisions for accuracy.”

Outside of the “free” user generated section, IMDb also introduced, back in 2002, a subscription-based service called “IMDbPro” for the industry professionals (actors/crew and recruiters) to essentially act as a LinkedIn but for Hollywood – providing space for professionals to upload resume type information, headshots, etc. and casting agents could search the database for talent.

Back in 2016 apparently SAG pushed for regulation in California (which was enacted as Assembly Bill 1687) that arguably targeted IMDb, in effort to curtail alleged age discrimination in the entertainment industry. No doubt a legitimate concern (as it is in many industries) however, often good intentions result in bad law.

AB 1687 was signed into law, codified at Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.83.5 and included the following provision:

A commercial online entertainment employment service provider that enters into a contractual agreement to provide employment services to an individual for a subscription payment shall not, upon request by the subscriber, do either of the following: (1) [p]ublish or make public the subscriber’s date of birth or age information in an online profile of the subscriber [or] (2) [s]hare the subscriber’s date of birth or age information with any Internet Web sites for the purpose of publication.

Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.83.5(b)(1)-(2)

The statute also provides, in pertinent part:

A commercial online entertainment employment service provider subject to subdivision (b) shall, within five days, remove from public view in an online profile of the subscriber the subscriber’s date of birth and age information on any companion Internet Web sites under its control upon specific request by the subscriber naming the Internet Web sites.

Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.83.5(c)

The practical affect of these provisions is that it requires that subscribers of IMDbPro, be able to request that IMDb, and that IMDb, upon such request, remove the subscriber’s age or date of birth from the subscriber’s profile (which I would think they could do on their own to the extent they have control over such profile data) AND, more problematically, anywhere else on their website where such information exists regardless of who created that content. This is now extending to content the IMDbPro subscribers may not have control over as it may have been generated by third-party users of the site.

The Court opinion explained that “[b]efore AB 1687 took effect, IMDb filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C § 1983 in the Northern District of California to prevent its enforcement. IMDb alleged that AB 1687 violated both the First Amendment and Commerce Clause of the Constitution, as well as the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(2).” While there was much back and forth between the parties, the crux of the debate, and crucial for the appeal was the debate over the language prohibiting IMDb’s ability to publish the age of information without regard to the source of the information.

When considering the statutory language restricting what could be posted the Court of Appeals concluded:

  • AB 1687 implemented content-based restriction on speech (i.e., dissemination of date of birth or age) that is subject to First Amendment scrutiny.
  • AB 1687 did not present a situation where reduced protection would apply (e.g., where the speech at issue is balanced against a social interest in order and morality).
    • IMDb’s content did not constitute Commercial Speech.
    • IMDb’s content did not facilitate illegal conduct.
    • IMDb’s content did not implicate privacy concerns.
  • AB 1687 does not survive strict scrutiny because it was not the least restrictive means to accomplish the goal and it wasn’t narrowly tailored.

In conclusion the Court articulated a position that I wholly agree with: “Unlawful age discrimination has no place in the entertainment industry, or any other industry. But not all statutory means of ending such discrimination are constitutional.”

Citation: IMDb.com, Inc. v. Becerra, Case Nos. 18-15463, 18-15469 (9th Cir. 2020)

Disclaimer: This is for general information purposes only and none of this is meant to be legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

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