Judge Vince Chhabria, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California
Judge Vince Chhabria, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge in San Francisco is poised to strike down a California state law that requires online entertainment database IMDb.com to remove actors’ ages on request.

U.S District Judge Vince Chhabria made clear Thursday morning that he thought the law violated the First Amendment, although he held off ruling from the bench.

The law, which took effect on Jan. 1, was backed by the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union and was billed as a tool to fight age discrimination in the entertainment industry. But in November IMDb, an Amazon.com Inc. subsidiary, sued to block the law, claiming that it runs afoul of the First Amendment and the broad protections provided to websites by the Communications Decency Act.

Anthony Hakl, the deputy attorney general charged with defending the law on behalf of the state, figured out pretty quickly at Thursday’s hearing where he stood with Chhabria.

The judge, who worked for the city attorney’s office in San Francisco before taking the bench, said he had defended “a number of laws that were very challenging to defend” in his prior work. But, he added, he couldn’t remember defending “a law that is as challenging to defend as you are trying to defend now.”

“I guess what I’ll say to you is, let’s see you dance,” said Chhabria with a grin.

Hakl contended that the legislation was not a broad constraint on speech since it applies only to users of subscription services such as IMDb Pro, a service separate from the IMDb site where entertainment professionals pay a fee for job placement services. The state, he said, had an interest in cutting down on instances of age discrimination in the entertainment industry and at IMDb.

But Chhabria indicated that he saw serious First Amendment issues with holding back facts that IMDb’s public website can publish based on its contractual relationship with customers in a separate venture. The judge also questioned whether the law could possibly achieve its underlying goal of reducing discrimination.

“How does preventing one website of the millions of websites out there publishing people’s age … even remotely help prevent age discrimination from happening?” Chhabria asked.

Douglas Mirrell, a lawyer representing the Screen Actors Guild at the hearing, said IMDb is the go-to source for the industry.

“They rely upon what IMDb says as the gospel,” Mirrell said. “It is in fact the bible for this industry.”

To that, Chhabria quipped, “This is the best advertisement IMDb has ever had.”

Chhabria didn’t ask to hear from IMDb’s lawyers, John Hueston and Moez Kaba of Hueston Hennigan.

The judge said he’s likely to issue an order shortly.