A $20 billion lawsuit a Black media mogul and comedian has filed against Comcast is headed to the Supreme Court this week, and the justices’ ruling in the case has the potential to roll back civil rights protections for African Americans and others.
Byron Allen is scheduled to argue before the justices on Wednesday that the Philadelphia-based media giant racially discriminated against him when it decided not to carry his company’s cable-television channels on its network.
If Allen’s lawsuit fails, Philly NAACP president Rodney Muhammad said, it would set a “ridiculous bar” for anyone filing a discrimination lawsuit because that person will have to show that race was the sole reason for a decision rather than only a contributing factor.
“It’s going to set up a barricade of Black exclusion in this country, I guarantee you,” Muhammad said during a news conference in the organization’s headquarters on Monday.
“It will do irreparable harm to the civil rights movement and hard-fought gains.”
Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman, said in an email the media company was “forced to appeal this decision to defend against a meritless $20 billion claim.”
“There is no major media company in America that has done more to promote diverse programming than Comcast,” she said. “Comcast believes that the civil rights laws are an essential tool for protecting the rights of African-Americans and other diverse communities.”
Verizon FIOS and AT&T are among the distributors who carry Allen’s channels. Distributors who do not carry Allen’s channels include Comcast and Charter Communications, the nation’s largest and second largest cable providers, respectively.
National Association of African American-Owned Media and Entertainment Studios Networks, which Allen owns, filed the federal lawsuit against Comcast in 2015 in California
Allen has also filed a similar $10 billion lawsuit against Charter Communications.
Three trial courts dismissed Allen’s lawsuit against Comcast before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld it last year. The Trump administration has sided with Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider.
At the heart of Allen’s case, Muhammad said, was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Section 1981, which was enacted a year after the Civil War ended and is the nation’s oldest civil rights law.
The law protects against racial discrimination by granting equal rights to make and enforce contracts without respect to race.
Without that protection, Blacks will have “no defense” when seeking to prove racial discrimination involving contracts, Muhammad said.
Twelve civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and American Civil Liberties Union, filed briefs with the Supreme Court supporting Allen’s case.
In the brief, the organizations said Comcast’s arguments would gut the 1866 civil rights law, which had the goal of placing “African Americans on equal footing as white citizens in our nation’s economy without the taint of racial discrimination.”
Fitzmaurice maintained Comcast was “not seeking to roll back any civil rights laws” and the company’s argument before the Supreme Court was “narrowly focused,” noting three previous trial courts dismissed Allen’s allegations.