By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — 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.
Bryon 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.
The stakes of the lawsuit are high for Blacks, said Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.
If Allen’s lawsuit fails, 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.”
Comcast did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
But a Comcast lawyer said recently that the media giant’s decision not to carry Allen’s channels had nothing to do with race, according to The Associated Press. Allen’s content was not original and lacked quality, leading to Comcast to make an editorial decision not to carry it, the Comcast lawyer said.
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.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.