Media mogul Byron Allen sees Comcast’s refusal carry his entertainment company’s channels as a clear-cut case of racial discrimination. Despite the former comedian’s adamant claims that his $20 billion lawsuit against the cable giant is a high-stakes civil rights case, the Supreme Court kicked the suit back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California to be judged by a stricter definition of bias that Allen needs to prove to proceed in federal court.
The ruling means he must show race was the determining reason Comcast refused to carry his channels. The high court took a much more narrow view than Allen of the legal questions raised. Allen’s team had cited an 1866 civil rights law enacted to ensure that former slaves would have the same right to make contracts as white citizens.
The Justices didn’t consider the merits of Allen’s claims, just whether a racial-discrimination lawsuit must allege that race was the determining reason a contract decision was made.
In 2015, Allen first sued Comcast (and separately in 2016, Charter Communications, owner of Spectrum Cable, for another $10 billion), charging that due to racial bias they’d refused to carry Entertainment Studios’ cable TV channels, including Comedy.TV, Pets.TV, and Cars.TV.
Allen saw it as a larger issue involving African American-owned networks; Comcast’s contention is that there was simply little interest in Allen’s networks among its subscribers.
“This case is NOT about African American-themed programming,” Allen said in a June 2019 statement after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, “but IS about African American OWNERSHIP of networks.”
Allen’s case was supported by more than two dozen civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Comcast had strong business support and was helped by President Trump’s Justice Department, which filed a brief supporting Comcast.
“Comcast/NBCUniversal teaming up with Donald Trump’s Department of Justice to eviscerate a civil rights statute in the U.S. Supreme Court is shameful, evil, and the epitome of American institutionalized racism,” Allen said in 2019.
On Monday, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing the majority opinion, made it clear they did not agree with Allen’s interpretation.
“To accept [Entertainment Studios’] invitation to consult, tinker with, and then engraft a test from a modern statute onto an old one would thus require more than a little judicial adventurism, and look a good deal more like amending a law than interpreting one,” Gorsuch wrote.
While some might see this as the result of a court with a majority of conservative justices, the verdict was unanimous. in her concurring opinion Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that a stricter focus on “but-for” causation would make it harder for future plaintiffs to pursue civil rights claims.
In a statement after the verdict, Allen said, “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has rendered a ruling that is harmful to the civil rights of millions of Americans. This is a very bad day for our country.”
Comcast said in a statement that it was “pleased the Supreme Court unanimously restored certainty on the standard to bring and prove civil rights claims. The well-established framework that has protected civil rights for decades continues.”
Allen will not give up easily. He has a long history of being tough and tenacious, which helped him build a fortune Forbes estimated earlier this year at over $400 million.
He now has over four dozen syndicated shows on the air and operates ten cable TV networks, streaming networks, an online news service, and a movie studio.
He stepped up is game in March 2018 with the acquisition of The Weather Channel from a group that included NBC Universal in a $300 million deal. In May 2019, Allen became a minority partner with Sinclair Broadcast Group in the $9.5 billion acquisition of 21 Fox Sports Networks including Prime Ticket in L.A.
In 2019, Allen also began creating a large local TV group with the purchase of Bayou City Broadcasting for $165 million. In October 2019, he added 11 more local TV outlets from USA Television for $290 million.
Even as the Supreme Court deliberated, Allen bid $8.5 billion in cash for Tegna Inc.’s group of 62 Big Four network affiliates in 51 markets earlier in March.
Allen has shown he has the will—and money—to keep up his battle.
In his statement Monday, Allen promised this isn’t over: “We will continue our fight by going to Congress and the presidential candidates to revise the statute to overcome this decision by the United States Supreme Court, which significantly diminishes our civil rights.”
“There’s nothing polite about this situation,” Allen told The New York Times last November. “I’m going to be loud, proud and I’m going to make a change.”
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