Can MTV Sue New Jersey For Nixing 'Jersey Shore' Tax Credit? (Analysis)

Why Governor Christie would like nothing better than if MTV sued over $420,00 worth of production incentives
Ian Spanier/MTV

New Jersey governor Chris Christie made headlines Monday by blocking a $420,000 film tax credit that was approved by the state Economic Development Authority to benefit MTV's Jersey Shore. The move went against the advice of the New Jersey State-Ledger, the local newspaper, which advised the politician in an editorial last week to "think twice" about nixing the credit lest the state open itself to an "army of MTV lawyers" that might sue.

Is there really a potential case here?

The local New Jersey newspaper worried that reneging on the promised tax incentive would open the state to to liability for making a decision that was less than "content-neutral."

There's been a handful of cases through the years that have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court over whether structuring tax breaks to encourage or discourage certain forms of art could be deemed a violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has warned against the "danger of censorship" and making coercive policies with conditions targeting a small number of speakers.

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But how about a general tax incentive for TV production and a state agency's discretion to determine who gets to benefit?

Earlier this year, this very question kicked off a lawsuit when Sandy Frank, a producer of unscripted television shows, sued Michigan officials for denying him a credit. Frank's production company claimed the rejection was a violation of equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The case is still pending.

In late July, in a motion to dismiss, Michigan's attorney general laid out the reasoning why the state film office and treasury department should be immune to such lawsuits. In short: the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which articulates the principal of a state's sovereign immunity from being sued in federal court.

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Of course, the 14th Amendment repealed some of the 11th Amendment (as the federal government wanted to do something about slavery in some states) and ever since, there's been a bit of a constitutional balancing act between federal and state authority. In the pending Frank case, the producer claims there are enough "federal questions at issue" for the court to maintain jurisdiction, whereas Michigan says that decisions that involve the state treasury, especially for something like film tax credits, don't pass muster.

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Now onto Jersey Shore...

Snooki and a phalanx of MTV lawyers can certainly swoop into federal court to take constitutional exception to Christie's statement he had to nix the "$420,000 bill for a project which does nothing more than perpetuate misconceptions about the State and its citizens." However, we guess the Republican governor would love this sort of fight. Not only would he be seen by some as standing up for taxpayers, but he'd probably earn even more Tea Party credit by fighting against the intrusion of federal government.


Twitter: @eriqgardner