A federal judge on Tuesday accused the California attorney general’s office of abusing its power in its ongoing legal battle with the Internet Movie Database.
IMDb has sued to invalidate a state law that would require the site to remove actors’ ages from their profile pages upon request. The site contends that the law — which is intended to combat age discrimination in the entertainment industry — is a straightforward violation of the First Amendment.
Judge Vince Chhabria has already granted an injunction to block the implementation of the law, known as A.B. 1687. The attorney general’s office subsequently filed a motion for discovery from IMDb. The state wanted to ask IMDb executives questions about how clients use the site, and sought a wide range of documents, including marketing materials, communications with third parties in the case, and records related to lobbying efforts against the law.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Chhabria said the requests were irrelevant to the case, which he said turns on legal analysis rather than any factual dispute. The judge also described the requests as a “disturbing” case of government harassment.
“The government seems to presume that, having failed to present any colorable argument or evidence in support of the notion that its speech restriction is actually necessary to combat age discrimination in the entertainment industry, it may now simply go fishing for a justification by imposing obligations on the party seeking to defend its First Amendment rights,” Chhabria wrote. “Restrict speech first and ask questions later, the government seems to say. This ignores the First Amendment’s heavy presumption against restricting speech of this kind. If there is no reasonable basis for believing a speech restriction is necessary, the government cannot impose one and then hope a justification materializes in discovery.”
The judge was especially blistering in his rebuke of the state’s effort to get information regarding IMDb’s lobbying efforts, and communications between IMDb and the parties that filed amicus briefs. Among the outside parties that have weighed in to defend IMBb are the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the First Amendment Lawyers Association.
Chhabria called those information requests “an outright abuse of power.”
“While that type of information could perhaps have relevance in some other context, it obviously has no relevance to the constitutional question presented in this case,” Chhabria wrote. “And the unsettling irony of seeking this information in a First Amendment case should be obvious.”
SAG-AFTRA sponsored the law, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last year. SAG-AFTRA has intervened in the case to defend the law. The AARP has also weighed in to support the law, arguing that the existence of IMDb thwarts the state’s efforts to combat age discrimination by barring employers from inquiring about a job candidates’ age.