Judge Calls California’s Demand for IMDb Data ‘Disturbing’

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge admitted to being “disturbed” by California’s demand that IMDb turn over data to help the state defend a law that restricts the publication of actors’ ages.

“In a normal civil case, these kinds of irrelevant and burdensome discovery requests are merely annoying,” U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in a biting, 5-page ruling issued Tuesday. “But this is a First Amendment case, involving a statute that restricts non-commercial speech …”

“Against this backdrop, the government’s discovery requests are more than annoying,” Chhabria added. “They’re disturbing.”

California was demanding that IMDb, which hosts a popular online database of films, TV shows and cast and crew members, turn over information on how members of the public use its website, its policies for posting age information, and its efforts to lobby against the now-enjoined state law, AB 1678, among other requests.

In February, Chhabria granted an injunction to block the state law, which required IMDb to remove actors’ ages and birth dates upon request, finding it violated IMDb’s First Amendment right to publish factual information. Chhabria also found the restriction did little to advance the state’s intended goal of curbing age discrimination in Hollywood. Casting directors could still get information on actors’ ages from other sources, the judge found.

After its failure to fend off an injunction against the law, the judge said the government seems to presume “it may now simply go fishing for a justification by imposing obligations on the party seeking to defend its First Amendment rights.”

IMDb first sued California in November 2016, claiming state lawmakers bowed to Hollywood special interests when they passed AB 1678. The bill, signed into law in September 2016, was supported by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which also intervened in IMDb’s lawsuit to defend the statute.

During a hearing in February, Chhabria warned the state that continuing to defend the law and pursue discovery would likely lead to a bigger taxpayer-funded fees award for IMBb lawyers at the end of the lawsuit.

In his discovery ruling issued Tuesday, the judge offered more harsh words for the state, telling it that when it comes to restricting speech that is not “actually necessary” to serve a compelling government interest, “the government can’t do this sort of thing whenever it wants.”

“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,” Chhabria wrote.

IMDb was created in 1990 by the company’s CEO Collin Needham, and its website was launched in 1996. The online database of on-screen entertainment has grown to feature 3 million movies and TV programs along with 6 million cast and crew members. It boasts 250 million unique visitors each month, according to IMDb’s lawsuit.

A spokesperson from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s Office said the office is still reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment.

Pam Greenwalt of the Screen Actors Guild did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday morning.

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