Supreme Court To Hear Case on Racial Discrimination in Cable Television

The US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a $20 billion lawsuit filed by Black media mogul Byron Allen against Comcast. Allen, who owns The Weather Channel and a host of other channels, claims that Comcast is not carrying his channels because of racial discrimination.

Allen has filed lawsuits against two cable companies for refusing to carry the channels his Entertainment Studios Networks (ESN) produces. The media mogul filed the $20 billion lawsuit against Comcast as well as a $10 billion suit against Charter Communications, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Allen’s case against Comcast will be presented to Supreme Court justices on November 13. Comcast says that its decision not to carry Allen’s channels, which largely focus on comedy, cars, food, and pets, has nothing to do with his race. His channels are carried by Verizon FIOS while the now-merged AT&T and DirecTV distribute them after Allen sued in the past.

Lynn Charytan, Comcast’s lawyer, told the AP that Allen’s content is “not particularly original” and “not particularly high quality.” The company likened Allen’s lawsuit to “a scam,” adding that Allen’s lawsuits were filed to increase media attention and timed to exploit when companies negotiate mergers.

“This is really a run-of-the-mill carriage dispute that has been dressed by Mr. Allen in the garb of racial discrimination for purposes of his own,” Comcast lawyer Miguel Estrada told the AP. Estrada later told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Allen would need to prove discrimination instead of “floating around” the idea that race played a role in a business decision.

The company added that the First Amendment allows it to distribute channels as it sees fit.

Allen’s attorney, Skip Miller, defended Allen’s channels as “popular programming in many areas.” He added there was no legitimate reason for the two major distributors to refuse to carry them. “There’s no reason, no reason in our opinion, other than he’s Black,” Miller said.

In an email to The North Star, Comcast said that it “proudly” distributes several independent networks that are majority-owned by Black entrepreneurs and investors. The email noted that Comcast also distributes networks that are led by Black executives for Black audiences, but are owned or co-owned by larger media companies, including OWN, BET, and Bounce TV.

Allen’s lawsuit was dismissed by a trial court three times before it was allowed to move forward by an appeals court, the AP reported. In a brief, Comcast claimed that the appeals court’s decision was wrong and not supported by law or precedent. “Comcast adamantly denies that it has engaged in any racial discrimination at any time, but even taking the allegations of the complaint at face value, Plaintiffs have not remotely pleaded a valid claim,” the brief said.

It continued: “Plaintiffs have alleged an outlandish conspiracy among Comcast, leading civil rights organizations, and even the federal government to discriminate not against African Americans, or African American-owned television networks, but only against ‘100 percent African American-owned networks’ — a gerrymandered racial category never before recognized by the courts.” The company, which is based in Philadelphia, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case following the decision by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California. Pro-business groups have joined Comcast by filing supporting briefs, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The Trump administration, which has repeatedly assailed Comcast in the past, also sided with the company. The federal government wrote an amicus brief in support of Comcast for the Supreme Court. Legal experts have warned that if the Supreme Court sides with Comcast, it could be harder for individuals to bring about civil rights cases. A decision for Comcast could also change how race affects lawsuits concerning rent, employment, and education, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Michael Foreman, the director of the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic at Pennsylvania State University, told the newspaper that the Supreme Court could decide “it’s OK to discriminate based on race, just don’t make that the significant part of the decision.” Allen, who founded his own media company in 1993, first sued Comcast in 2015 based on Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The law states that all individuals have “the same right… to make and enforce contracts… as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

In a letter to Comcast, Michael A. Lawson, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, threatened to boycott Comcast. “Racism absolutely has no place in business. We urge the Supreme Court to protect the rights of Blacks and all Americans to do business without the vile presence of racism,” Lawson said in a statement. “Racism has no place in any contract negotiation. Once racism is present, it taints the entire negotiation and that taint cannot be cleansed.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.