Curious about your favorite celebrity’s date of birth? Do your research ASAP: a new law signed in September by California Governor Jerry Brown gives actors the power to demand that entertainment websites like the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) remove information about their ages. The law—which becomes effective January 1, 2017—is intended to protect against age discrimination in Hollywood. And yes, free-speech advocates are up in arms.
The law grants sites five days to comply with a request after a paying member asks that their age be removed. In response, IMDb filed suit in U.S. District Court against California’s Attorney General (and soon-to-be U.S. senator) Kamala Harris in an effort to overturn the new law.
A $1 million lawsuit filed in 2013 by actress Huong Hoang, known professionally as Junie Hoang, gave rise to the new law, and indeed the entire online-age debate. Hoang asserted that IMDb’s refusal to remove her date of birth branded her as “over the hill” and caused her the loss of film roles. A Seattle jury ruled in favor of IMDb, which led to the opposition lobbying for the California law, now about to take effect. Or not.
In this corner…
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) had loudly lobbied for the bill, telling its members in an open letter that “Age discrimination is a major problem in our industry, and it must be addressed.” The Guild, which represents more than 116,000 active members, asserts that publishing performers’ dates of birth can cause “career damage.”
SAG-AFTRA’s union president Gabrielle Carteris (who famously lied about her age to secure a role as a teenage cast member of Beverly Hills 90210) argued in an August op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter that if electronic databases had been omnipresent in 1990, when she auditioned for the role, she would never have been cast.
“My role on Beverly Hills, 90210 could not have happened for me today, plain and simple,” Carteris wrote. “I would never have been called to audition for the part of 16-year-old Andrea Zuckerman if they had known I was 29. Electronic casting sites did not exist in 1990; today, they are prevalent and influential. And they affect casting decisions even when casting personnel don’t recognize their unconscious bias.”
And in the other corner…
Debates over the law hinge on whether or not age is fodder for the public domain, and the wider implications on censorship generally. While the bill specifically restricts its coverage to sites that provide employment-related services on a subscription basis (e.g., IMDb Pro and StudioSystem), First Amendment activists contend that its effects could be broader.
Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Washington D.C.-based lobbying group the Internet Association, spoke out against age discrimination in Hollywood in his own Hollywood Reporter op-ed while arguing that “the law would seriously undermine some of our most fundamental rights, while doing nothing to eliminate discrimination in casting.”
Beckerman deemed arguments like Carteris’s “problematic” for multiple reasons: “Requiring the removal of factually accurate age information across websites suppresses free speech. This is not a question of preventing salacious rumors; rather it is about the right to present basic facts that live in the public domain. Displaying such information isn’t a form of discrimination, and internet companies should not be punished for how people use public data.
“In addition to these immediate harms, permitting unconstitutional limitations on free speech—even in the pursuit of similarly noble intentions—opens up a Pandora’s box for more harmful consequences in the future. Currently, the law would target entertainment sites such as IMDb from posting age information about actors. But consider this: If the goal is to prevent discrimination by limiting information, should lawmakers force redactions from any website, even Wikipedia?”
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, says it’s possible his organization could sue to block the law’s implementation. As Scheer recently told the LA Weekly, “You can’t take out of circulation true facts because you don’t like the true facts. IMDb is being forced by the government to censor itself.”
“We would love to challenge this law,” Scheer added. “It was done with good intentions, but I’m sure that it’s unconstitutional.”
Now shake hands and come out fighting
In its own filing, IMDb contends that the state has “chosen to chill free speech and undermine public access to factual information,” arguing that not only has the site been unfairly targeted, but that the law itself does nothing to address the sources of age discrimination.
“Prejudice and bias, not truthful information, are the root causes of discrimination,” the lawsuit says. “This law unfairly targets IMDb.com (which appears to be the only public site impacted by the law) and forces IMDb to suppress factual information from public view. Moreover, the factual information being suppressed from IMDb is available from many other sources.”
We’ll soon see if that argument is enough to turn back the new law, but age discrimination in the workplace is a problem everybody deals with, and isn’t going away anytime soon.