When the Legislature passed – and Gov. Jerry Brown signed – Assembly Bill 1687 two years ago, they exhibited two of the Capitol’s more unseemly traits.
The legislation, aimed directly at IMDb, a company that maintains databases of actors and other entertainment information, forbade it and similar firms from publishing the ages of performers if they wanted to keep them secret.
Trait No. 1: Capitol politicians love to cater to demands from Hollywood luminaries, no matter how illogical or far-fetched they may be, such as trying to censor a database of actors.
Politicians shouldn’t be star-struck by Hollywood and they shouldn’t erode constitutional rights “just because we think we can.”
Examples of the syndrome abound, such as a special tax break that legislators and Brown gave movie producers a few years ago on the specious notion that it would stop them from taking their productions to other states or nations.
As they were offering the multi-million-dollar handout to Hollywood, they were abolishing two major programs that provided tax break subsidies to other forms of business: local “redevelopment” projects and “enterprise zones.”
Brown was particularly scathing in his criticism of both, and they deserved it. But to abolish them and then give Hollywood a hefty gift from the state treasury merely underscored how that particular industry – a very minor piece of the state’s economy, by the way – is given special treatment when it comes calling in Sacramento.
The second trait displayed in AB 1687 is the eagerness of the Capitol’s dominant Democrats to impose their notions of righteousness even when they conflict with constitutional rights – which is a little odd, given the party’s constant pronouncements about protecting those rights vis-à-vis those on the political right.
Ostensibly, the bill was to prevent age discrimination against actors when they applied for roles that didn’t match their true ages.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra, in defending the law, portrayed it as a valid regulation of a commercial contract, since actors may pay to have themselves listed in the directory.
AB 1687’s author, Assemblyman Ian Calderon, a Whittier Democrat, told CALmatters.org political writer Laurel Rosenhall, “The Legislature isn’t looking to censor anyone or anything just because we think we can. It’s about protecting an industry that is large in this state, that is homegrown to this state, and the folks that work within it.”
However, it clearly violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech, as a federal judge concluded last month in overturning it.
Judge Vince Chhabria declared, “The law expressly contemplates that it will impact not just information obtained pursuant to a contractual relationship but also information provided by members of the public” and therefore is a direct restriction on free speech.
The age of an actor is obviously not a matter of cosmic importance, but the principle involved is the same as those in other “prior restraint” cases, such as newspapers’ battle with the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers nearly 50 years ago. Ironically enough, in a current movie, “The Post,” the film industry celebrates the free press battle over the Pentagon Papers that the Washington Post waged.
Calderon’s comment, in fact, reveals that legislators are indeed willing to censor or otherwise violate constitutional rights whenever they wish just because they can.
For instance, until slapped down by another judge, they prohibited rebroadcasting the Legislature’s video footage of their own proceedings. They passed another law making it a crime to distribute a “confidential communication” with a health care provider, aimed at anti-abortion activists.
The lesson of AB 1687, therefore, is two-fold. Politicians shouldn’t be star-struck by Hollywood and they shouldn’t erode constitutional rights “just because we think we can,” regardless of the supposed worthiness of their motives.
Dan Walters is a columnist at CALmatters. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.