[author: Michele Bowman]
Know why you’ve never seen a black “Bachelor” or “Bachelorette” on the hit reality series of the same names? Because American audiences can’t handle mixed-race couples, and the TV network that owns the show racially discriminates among its contestants to make sure that never happens.
That’s according to a lawsuit filed in California last April by two black would-be bachelors against ABC and other companies who produce “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” Nashville residents Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson, who were turned down for lead roles in 2011, claimed the reality shows violate federal and state laws intended to guarantee equal opportunity in business, commerce, and media regardless of one’s skin color.
Despite there having never been a black lead (and only a few suitors who are always dismissed in early rounds) in the 16 seasons of the shows, the plaintiffs were unsuccessful in their attempt to bring a class action on behalf of all contestants who’ve been discriminated against: A federal judge in Tennessee dismissed their lawsuit on Oct. 5 on First Amendment grounds.
Mehri & Skalet, a Washington, D.C., law firm that represents the plaintiffs, say the shows’ creator Michael Fleiss (who was one of the defendants named in the suit) responded to criticism of the show’s all-white palette by saying of black contestants, “We always want to cast for ethnic diversity. It’s just that for whatever reason, they don’t come forward. I wish they would.”
But Claybrooks and Johnson, both football players, say that’s exactly what they did – and were turned down almost immediately, according to the opinion dismissing their case.
The men alleged that they were treated differently than white applicants at the casting calls, with Claybrooks saying he was only given a 20-minute interview while other, white applicants were given about 45 minutes. Johnson says an employee of the show stopped him on his way into the casting call and took his materials, promising to pass them along to the casting directors, but none of the other applicants were stopped in that way.
The plaintiffs demanded punitive damages, an injunction prohibiting ABC from further discriminating based on race, and an injunction requiring it to consider nonwhites as finalists for the role of bachelor and bachelorette.
First Time, First Amendment
The judge was unswayed, however, and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on First Amendment grounds, saying that the network’s right to free speech trumps anti-discrimination laws.
While the parties agreed that the First Amendment protects the content of the programs, they disagreed over whether casting decisions were part of that content. This was the first time, noted the judge, that a federal court has been asked to decide that question.
The judge ended up agreeing with the defendants that casting decisions are a key to the creative content of any entertainment program and held that the First Amendment protects those decisions, regardless of their outcome. “Regulating the casting process necessarily regulates the end product,” she said. “Casting and the resulting work of entertainment are inseparable and must both be protected to ensure that the producers’ freedom of speech is not abridged.”
The Los Angeles Times quoted a spokesperson for Warner Horizon, one of the defendants, as saying, “We felt from the onset this case was completely without merit and we are pleased the Court has found in our favor.”
But this may not be the end of it: One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers indicated that they are not giving up. “We are disappointed by the decision and are examining all of our options,” says Cyrus Mehri. “While this is a setback, we are hopeful that there will ultimately be a positive outcome.”
Do you think ABC should have the First Amendment right to racially discriminate in its casting decisions for TV shows?
Photo credit & text: A federal judge on Oct. 15, 2012 dismissed a lawsuit filed by Christopher Johnson, left, and Nathaniel Claybrooks, right, who claimed “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” discriminated against persons of color by failing to select non-whites for central roles in the popular ABC series. The judge ruled that casting decisions are protected by the First Amendment. ( AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)