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A group of Nashville residents led by Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson brought the lawsuit earlier this year, alleging that the roles of the Bachelor and Bachelorette on the hit reality series have failed to feature non-white cast members, and that civil rights law “plainly prohibits whites from refusing to contract with African Americans because of their race.”
The defendants pointed to the First Amendment as a bar against such claims.
On Monday, a federal judge agreed and ruled that the lawsuit must be tossed:
“As defendants persuasively argue, casting decisions are a necessary component of any entertainment show’s creative content…The plaintiffs seek to drive an artificial wedge between casting decisions and the end product, which itself is indisputably protected as speech by the First Amendment. Thus, regulating the casting process necessarily regulates the end product. In this respect, casting and the resulting work of entertainment are inseparable and must both be protected to ensure that the producers’ freedom of speech is not abridged.”
Warner Bros. is cheering the decision. In a statement, the company says, “We felt from the onset this case was completely without merit and we are pleased the Court has found in our favor.”
From the get-go, when the the lawsuit was filed in April in a Tennessee federal court, the plaintiffs figured to have a tough road in overcoming a First Amendment roadblock.
Attorneys for Claybrooks and Johnson, who both tried out for the show and didn’t make it, argued that their lawsuit “underscores the significant barriers that people of color continue to face in media and the broader marketplace,” and attempted to present the legal theory that producers needed to heed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and other anti-discrimination laws.
The Bachelor made an attractive target for plaintiffs. As a popular reality show, it has been the subject of those attempting to read larger social messages. And Bachelor executive producer Mike Fleiss has responded to criticisms about the show’s diversity by joking in interviews about who has appeared on the show. This might have given the plaintiffs hope of identifying smoking-gun evidence of racism in the show’s “decision-making process.”
But many courts have given producers wide-latitude in the formulation of expressive free speech like entertainment content. For example, when a former writer’s assistant on the NBC show Friends sued about a decade ago for sexual harassment over jokes told in the writers’ room, the case was dismissed on grounds that the alleged offensive conduct was part of the creative process.
In June, the defendants pointed to the First Amendment, citing a 1995 Supreme Court decision that determined that parade organizers weren’t compelled to include the participation of a gay group and argued, “Defendants’ expressive choices regarding both the message their programming conveys, and the individuals who convey it, are entitled to broad protection.”
In handling a motion to dismiss The Bachelor racial discrimination lawsuit, U.S. District Court judge Aleta Trauger was judicially obligated to assume the truth of the plaintiffs’ allegations that the racial composition of the show conveys an influential message to the viewing public, that ABC/Warner made casting decisions to control the message, and that the plaintiffs strongly disagree with that message.
But even if the plaintiffs are correct that the show adopts an “outdated” sense of mating, Judge Trauger says it is within the defendants’ rights.
“The Shows’ casting decisions are part and parcel of the Shows’ creative content, which the plaintiffs seek to reform,” writes the judge. “That is plainly an attempt to regulate the content of the Shows, which the First Amendment forbids.”
Judge Trauger continues, “The plaintiffs’ goals here are laudable: they seek to support the social acceptance of interracial relationships, to eradicate outdated racial taboos, and to encourage television networks not to perpetuate outdated racial stereotypes. Nevertheless, the First Amendment prevents the plaintiffs from effectuating these goals by forcing the defendants to employ race-neutral criteria in their casting decisions in order to ‘showcase’ a more progressive message.”
The ruling is subject to appeal. We’ll update further upon response from the plaintiffs.
The defendants were represented by Adam Levin and Seth Pierce at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp
E-mail: email@example.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner
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