In a case of first impression, the Tennessee Middle District Court recently confronted the issue of racial discrimination in reality television.  Plaintiffs Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson—two African American men who were denied the opportunity to be cast as The Bachelor in ABC’s reality-based dating show of the same name—filed a class action suit on behalf of all contestants of color who had applied and been denied the opportunity to star as the title contestant in The Bachelor or The Bachelorette.

Claybrooks and Johnson—who attended different auditions—claim they were treated differently than potential Caucasian contestants by being stopped at the main entrance to the lobby, not being allowed to audition, and being subjected to a significantly shorter audition interview than white males who auditioned.

Plaintiffs filed suit under §1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seeking declaratory, injunctive, and monetary forms of relief.  Section 1981 prohibits racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts with private and public companies.   The main issue addressed by the court: are casting decisions subject to the federal laws in place for the purpose of preventing racial discrimination?

The Tennessee Middle District Court answered a resounding no.  Recognizing the important societal interest in preventing discrimination and the constitutional protections under the First Amendment, the district court dismissed the suit with prejudice.  Reasoning that casting decisions, as inextricably tied to the artistic process, were entitled to First Amendment Protections under the artistic freedom of expression.

Though the case was seemingly stopped short in its tracks, it has important legal and social implications.  As a case of first impression, other courts have yet to weigh in on casting decisions and anti-discrimination laws.  A future court confronted with a similar legal claim could find a compelling governmental interest in promoting diversity and prohibiting discrimination, creating a means of circumventing the broad protections afforded by freedom of artistic expression under the First Amendment.

–Erin Shackelford

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