The Supreme Court recently heard a case that could have tremendous ramifications for one of the earliest pieces of civil rights legislation. After a long, drawn-out legal battle between entrepreneur Byron Allen and Comcast, the Supreme Court will make a ruling on the original Civil Rights Act passed shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. The court’s ruling could very well determine the extent to which companies could discriminate based on race without facing punishment.
Byron Allen vs. Comcast
Byron Allen is a black American businessman, television producer, and former comedian. He owns various television networks, including the Weather Channel. He is suing media giant Comcast for alleged racial discrimination. The lawsuit came about as the result of the company’s refusal to carry channels owned by Entertainment Studios, Allen’s company, while agreeing to do business with entities that don’t have black owners.
The suit alleges that Comcast carries “lesser-known, white-owned” networks, such as the Outdoor Channel and FitTV, but refused to carry Allen’s channels. Despite taking the steps suggested by Comcast to secure a deal, the company still did not agree to pick up the entrepreneur’s channels.
Comcast claims that their decisions were not based on race; they carry some black-owned stations like RevoltTV, which is owned by former rapper and media mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs. In cases such as these, the plaintiff is required to prove that the defendant would have approved the deal “but for” the entrepreneur’s race.
Three lower federal courts ruled in Comcast’s favor last year before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Allen’s legal team needed only to establish that race is a motivating factor in the media giant’s decision to reject the offer. Comcast appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, where the case was heard earlier this month.
Interpreting the First Civil Rights Law
Allen’s team claims Comcast is violating the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits racial discrimination against non-white Americans in contracts. It was passed shortly after slavery was abolished because of the apparent reality that, while black Americans received their freedom, businesses would still discriminate against them based on their skin color.
The Supreme Court’s decision will not solve the dispute between Allen and Comcast. The crux of the matter is the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and how section 1981, which outlines protections for minority Americans, should be interpreted. The court will decide whether or not Allen’s lawsuit has enough evidence of racial discrimination to go forward into the discovery phase.
The Department of Justice weighed in on the matter when Attorney General William Barr filed an amicus brief with the court, framing the statute in a way that would require the plaintiff to prove that race was the sole factor in Comcast’s decision to reject Entertainment Studios. In contrast, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Allen’s team would need to demonstrate that Comcast’s decision was based, at least in part, on race.
Both sides of this affair have arguments that could alter the nature of economic transactions, especially when it comes to protections for minority business owners. On the one hand, if the court sides with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, it may create a situation where companies are vulnerable to lawsuits based on false accusations of racism. These organizations could lose gigantic sums of money defending against frivolous lawsuits.
Conversely, if the court adopts the parameters laid out in Barr’s brief, it could make it easier for companies to discriminate on the basis of race. Proving that a business decision is based 100% on race, and no other factors is nearly impossible. It might mean plaintiffs would not have any legal recourse in cases involving legitimate instances of racial discrimination.
How Will SCOTUS Rule?
The Supreme Court has until June of 2020 to make a ruling, but some of the justices have hinted that they might be more amenable to allowing Allen’s lawsuit to proceed. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said: “In my years of looking at discrimination complaints, it’s pretty rare to throw one out at the motion-to-dismiss state, as long as it passes, you know, a pretty low bar.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that Allen’s team had at least enough evidence of racial discrimination to proceed with the case. “As long as you have enough in your complaint to show racial animus and a reasonable inference can be drawn that that’s a but-for cause, I think a plaintiff has done more than enough.”
Chief Justice John Roberts also weighed in, asking why if “clear racial animus” was present at one point in a negotiation, it would be unreasonable to allege that discrimination remained until the end. “In the contract negotiation process, for example, there may be several steps along the way, and if at one of those steps there’s clear racial animus evident and at the end of the day, the contract is denied, it may be hard to prove but-for causation,” he said.
The issue of racial discrimination has always been controversial. The hard left’s tendency to launch false accusations of racism at their political opponents has muddied the issue to the point that it can be quite challenging to determine whether or not bigotry is actually present.
On the other hand, the right’s hesitancy to address racism is an abdication of the narrative to the progressive left. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling could have significant consequences on race relations and the nature of commerce in the United States and could lead to a total reinterpretation of the nation’s first civil rights law. In light of the gravity of the situation, it is clear that the Supreme Court has its work cut out for them with this one.
Read more from Jeff Charles.