The producers of American Idol last week moved to dismiss a discrimination suit alleging that African-American contestants with prior arrests or convictions were shamed and disqualified while similarly-situated white contestants were promoted as “second chance” stories. (See our prior post here.) The motion begins by highlighting the success of African-American contestants generally:
By their own allegations, from the show’s inception, approximately one-third of the “Golden Ticket” winners (who advance beyond the open auditions and travel to Hollywood), have been African American. Plaintiffs also allege that approximately one-third of American Idol’s semi-finalists have been African American. During the show’s twelve seasons, four of the winners have been African American. African Americans thus have participated in key stages of the contest at more than double their proportion of the country’s population.
The motion also argues (among other things) that the plaintiffs’ claims are barred by the First Amendment:
Plaintiffs’ complaints about their disqualifications from the program go to the heart of fundamentally expressive decisions that are protected by the First Amendment. Plaintiffs themselves claim that American Idol is more than a singing contest. It is a narrative about the contestants and their personal stories. This is not a minor aspect of plaintiffs’ claim. Rather, the overarching theme of the complaint is that defendants used the show to tell a story of “white redemption” posed against a story “condemn[ing] Black American Idol Contestants[.]” (TAC ¶ 939.) While defendants deny these accusations, plaintiffs’ own words demonstrate that they are attacking constitutionally protected speech. . . . [P]laintiffs go so far as to seek injunctive relief to prevent defendants from making certain decisions about how to portray contestants, which contestants to disqualify, and how to depict any disqualifications. Plaintiffs thus seek to use Section 1981 to regulate defendants’ creative choices and replace defendants’ expressive “message” with their own. This “violates the fundamental rule of protection under the First Amendment[:] that a speaker has autonomy to choose the content of his own message.”
Separately, the motion seeks to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claim that the show’s standard contestant contracts are unlawful and unenforceable. The defendants attach to their papers a copy of a contestant contract – complete with a separate confidentiality agreement prohibiting contestants from disclosing its terms. The contract allows the show to “reveal and/or relate information about [contestants] of a personal, private, intimate, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing or unfavorable nature, that may be factual and/or fictional,” and states that contestants who supply producers with false information about themselves or disclose confidential information must pay the show $5 million.