Supreme Court Could Turn Clock Back on Civil Rights With Byron Allen-Comcast Suit - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise magazine Fall 2019 issue

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case involving Byron Allen’s $20 billion lawsuit against Comcast that has left the civil rights protections of millions hanging in the balance.

In response to yesterday’s proceedings, the NAACP hosted a special tele-town hall featuring presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, along with NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson and General Counsel Bradford M. Berry. All stressed the importance of upholding Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which allows people of color the right to bring discrimination cases before a court of law. Moreover, they expressed deep concerns that the constitutionality of the statute is being weighed by a conservative-majority court.

During the call, Harris asserted: “This section of the code was designed to stop racial discrimination in business contracts, regardless of whether discrimination was the sole reason a business contract wasn’t signed. Essentially, it would be against the law if racial discrimination was just a part of the reason a contract was signed. If the Supreme Court narrows this law, it would give corporations cover to cover up racial discrimination and avoid accountability. A bad decision, in this case, could have an impact on everyday businesses of black people across our country.”

The NAACP released highlights of the tele-town hall to BLACK ENTERPRISE and other media.

Will The Supreme Court Turn the Clock Back On Civil Rights?

According to news reports, Allen, who owns Entertainment Studios and The Weather Channel, filed a lawsuit against Comcast—in addition to a $10 million suit against Charter Communications—claiming that the media conglomerate denied to include his array of cable TV channels on their systems due, in part, to racial bias in violation of Section 1981. Comcast argued that its rejection of the channels was a business decision. After the case had been dismissed three times in lower district courts, Allen appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that plaintiffs had a viable claim under Section 1981 if they can demonstrate discriminatory intent was a factor in the refusal of a contract. Comcast petitioned the Supreme Court to review that decision. By gaining agreement from the high court, the cable carriage dispute turned into a constitutional case.

Following the hour of oral arguments, Johnson stressed on the call that the case is “one of monumental importance to the protection and continuation of black businesses and contractors. The attempt to turn back the clock on one of the most vital civil rights protections is a grave threat to the very fabric of the nation—we will continue to fight so that section 1981 is preserved for generations to come.”

Booker maintained that Comcast is representing itself in a manner that seeks to undermine a critical aspect of civil rights laws that will have “wide-sweeping consequences” on all African Americans. “I still find it just so egregious that this is equivalent to an attack on one of our most durable and oldest civil rights laws,” he said.

He further stated that a ruling, due by the end of June, to strike section 1981 of the Reconstruction-Era law would make it extremely difficult for those facing discrimination to get their cases on court dockets since “it would require plaintiffs to prove that the adverse outcome would not have occurred but for discrimination on the part of the defendant.”

Harris added: “Justice and equality are at stake in this Supreme Court case and I am very concerned about the lasting implications that a bad decision can have on key civil rights laws, and particularly a law that protects against race discrimination throughout our country.”

Bradford M. Berry, NAACP’s General Counsel, raised the issue of the Trump’s administration support of Comcast’s position: “Through the Solicitor General’s Office, the current administration is set on pushing an agenda that will roll back this protection and make it near-impossible to call out racism and discrimination.”