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For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to shutter across the nation, the movie theater industry is going to court claiming constitutional injury. On Monday night, AMC, Cinemark and Regal were among the exhibition giants to allege that New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy can’t keep theaters closed any longer.
“By this Complaint, Plaintiffs challenge Defendants’ unconstitutional and unlawful distinctions in allowing certain places of public assembly to reopen, while requiring movie theatres to remain closed,” states a complaint being led by the National Association of Theatre Owners of New Jersey. “COVID-19 represents a serious public health risk, and Plaintiffs support fair and reasonable actions by the government to address that risk. However, the government-mandated total closure of movie theatres is neither fair nor reasonable, and is instead a violation of Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, Equal Protection of the laws, Due Process under the law, and is a Taking of property without just compensation.”
The suit is being handled by prominent First Amendment attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine, a firm that represents many in the media (including The Hollywood Reporter.)
The full complaint (read here) discusses how New Jersey has now entered Stage 2 of its reopening plan, which includes retail stores and indoor shopping malls. The suit speaks to how New Jersey has also allowed places of worship to re-open but has made no timeline for the commencement of Stage 3, or for the reopening of movie theatres.
At the moment, there has been a resurgence of coronavirus cases across the nation, but according to the COVID Tracking Project, New Jersey has been faring better than most states. That said, many public officials in hard-hit places in the Northeast are being extra careful given a sharp rebound of cases in the South and in California upon re-openings there.
“Defendants have a legal obligation to promulgate orders that treat like entities in a like manner, and not to create arbitrary or irrational distinctions, particularly where First Amendment rights are at stake,” states the complaint. ” Although Defendants have issued orders allowing other public assemblies such as religious services and ceremonies to open, they have withheld approval for movie theatres, which are similarly situated, if not less of a risk, from a public health perspective. Representatives of Plaintiffs met with representatives of Defendants, and the representatives of Plaintiffs shared detailed safety protocols that would be implemented for the reopening of movie theatres in the State that Plaintiffs are ready, willing, and able to implement.”
The theatre industry asks for an order enjoining New Jersey from enforcing orders that treats movie houses any differently than similar businesses. The complaint also seeks a declaration that Governor Murphy’s actions constitute a deprivation of just compensation.
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