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Law barring disclosure of actors’ ages violates 1st Amendment, appeals court rules

A federal appeals court struck down a California law that barred IMDb and other sites from disclosing ages of screen actors.
A federal appeals court on Friday struck down a California law that barred IMDb and other internet sites from disclosing the ages of screen actors.
(Getty Images)

A federal appeals court on Friday struck down a California law that barred internet sites from disclosing the ages of screen actors.

The 2017 law, which the Screen Actors Guild had sought as a means to reduce age discrimination, violates the 1st Amendment, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided unanimously.

The law was challenged by the Internet Movie Database — IMDb.com — a free website that provides information about movies, television shows and video games and offers encyclopedic profiles of actors.

In addition to its publicly available site, IMDb has a subscription-based service for the entertainment industry, known as IMDbPro, which the court described as “Hollywood’s version of LinkedIn.” Actors, writers, set designers, makeup artists and others create resumes by uploading head shots, prior jobs and biographical information to the site. Casting directors, agents and producers peruse the site for hiring.

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It has been nearly six months since Gabrielle Carteris, the former “Beverly Hills, 90210” actress and longtime labor activist, was elected as president of Hollywood’s largest union — and she’s already making her mark.

The California law said that if a subscriber requested to have his or her age removed, the database must also remove the information from its free, publicly available site.

Friday’s decision upheld a 2018 ruling by a district judge, who blocked the law on free speech grounds.

“We agree with the district court that reducing incidents of age discrimination is a compelling government interest,” Judge Bridget S. Bade, a Trump appointee, wrote for the panel. But she said the law was neither the least restrictive means to reach that goal nor was it narrowly written.

“An unconstitutional statute that could achieve positive societal results is nonetheless unconstitutional,” she said.

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The Legislature, in passing the law, cited a May 21, 2015, article from the Guardian in which an Academy Award-nominated actress said she had been rejected for a role because of her age.

The article was based on an interview Maggie Gyllenhaal gave to the Wrap. She said a Hollywood producer had told her she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. She was 37 at the time.

“There are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time,” she was quoted as saying. “I’m 37, and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”

John C. Hueston, who represented IMDb in the case, praised the decision.

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“The 9th Circuit’s opinion in this important 1st Amendment case establishes that the state cannot censor speech, despite how the state labels that speech, and reinforces the centrality of an open marketplace of ideas,” Hueston said.

Even though the intent of the law may be good, he added, “the ends do not justify any means whatsoever.”

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents about 160,000 actors, announcers, broadcast journalists and others, expressed dismay over the ruling.

“We’re very disappointed by the decision, but it changes nothing about SAG-AFTRA’s commitment to change IMDb’s wrongful and abusive conduct,” SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said. “Neither I nor our members will stop speaking out until this outrageous violation of privacy used to facilitate discriminatory hiring ends.”

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SAG-AFTRA Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said the court’s conclusion that the law would not have a major impact on age discrimination was “simply ill-informed.” The union has not yet decided whether to appeal, he said.


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