Does the First Amendment protect speech when someone yells accurate birthdays in a crowded theater? A new law in California prohibiting websites from publishing the birthdates of actors has been challenged by IMDB, a popular website for film and TV fans as well as those who work in the industry — and to make it a crime as well as a civil tort. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown reported last week on an amicus brief from the Screen Actors Guild in support for the law, against which a federal court has issued an injunction while the lawsuit is being heard:
At issue is a 2016 law (Assembly Bill 1687) ostensibly designed “to ensure that information obtained on an Internet Web site regarding an individual’s age will not be used in furtherance of employment or age discrimination.”
But rather than address age discrimination per se, the law simply bans certain types of websites from publishing accurate age information about certain classes of entertainment workers. As such, it “sets a dangerous and unconstitutional precendent,” claim lawyers for the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), “and should be deeply troubling to all who care about free speech.” …
The way the new law was written, random websites that publish the ages of entertainment professionals are still in the clear. But any “online entertainment employment service provider” that accepts payment for its services falls under the measure’s purview. For such individuals or entities, paid-user requests to remove age information must be honored within five days or else the site risks civil and criminal penalties. These providers are also barred from sharing age info with or publishing it on other sites. …
Becerra argued to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that “if [the bill] is to be considered a speech regulation, it is a valid commercial speech regulation,” because the legislature found “the problem of age discrimination in the entertainment industry to be real, adopted the provision to aid in solving that problem, and matched the restriction to the problem to be addressed.”
The union that represents performers in an industry protected by the First Amendment fails to see the irony in its own legal position on AB 1687:
In its own motion, SAG-AFTRA complained that IMDB “contends it has an absolute First Amendment right to disseminate the ages of everyone in Hollywood, consequences be damned, and no matter how much or little value such expression has in the marketplace of ideas.” But “so long as the communication of the age of persons in the entertainment industry writ large facilitates illegal age discrimination, such expression may be regulated consistent with the First Amendment even though specific communications might not be discriminatory.”
Notably, the law doesn’t actually do anything about age discrimination at all. It only addresses the factually accurate publication of the birthdates (and therefore ages) of entertainers. What makes SAG-AFTRA’s position almost comical is that they would be the first ones to complain about commercial and/or political pressure on content in their own product. Even decades later, Hollywood insists on revisiting the blacklist of the 1950s and painting themselves as the heroes of free speech. Now, suddenly, an industry website wants to publish accurate and generally public demographic information about actors, and the same people want to penalize it into silence and to prosecute them as criminals.
If IMDB can’t publish factual information about actors, should studios be allowed to publish factually deficient films about historical figures? How about factually inaccurate political polemics? The correct answer is that both should be allowed to publish their product without government penalties, but Hollywood’s elite wants free speech for we and not for thee. They’re treading on the edge of a very slippery slope — and all without addressing the actual mechanism of the alleged injustice they want to resolve, which is committed by casting directors and studios which have plenty of resources to find this information elsewhere anyway.
Because ageism is allegedly rampant in Hollywood, California legislators have decided to address the problem head on not at all. Instead of enforcing on-the-books laws against employment discrimination, the legislature — backed by the Screen Actors Guild — has decided some of the First Amendment has to go. It has crafted a new law to fight ageism in Hollywood studios… by targeting a popular movie database. In California, A + B = WTF. …
The motion is filled with terrible arguments. But considering its conceit, where else could it go? When you start with the premise the best fix for ageism at movie studios is targeting a third-party website, there’s really no room for logic or coherent arguments. Add to that the fact that actors are actively calling for free speech restrictions, and you’ve got an elliptical mess on your hands — one that makes the argument the state can be trusted to determine what speech has “value.”
It’s a bad idea to criminalize fake news. It’s a much worse idea to criminalize publication of accurate information on public figures. If Hollywood’s celebrities have an issue with ageism in their industry, they should have the courage to deal with that directly rather than sic the government on factual speech. If they suck up and deal with the problem directly, they can make movies about that for the next fifty years, long after viewers have grown bored with their hypocritical self-celebrations.
Addendum: Elizabeth Nolan-Brown will be my guest on tomorrow’s Ed Morrissey Show, which starts at 4 ET. Be sure to tune in!