NYC Comptroller Asks Comcast to Stand Down in Supreme Court Suit

The comptroller of the City of New York has told Comcast that its Supreme Court challenge to a lawsuit charging discrimination could adversely affect the $423 million in Comcast stock held by the New York City Retirement Systems.

In a letter to Comcast chairman Brian Roberts, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer said that resolving his dispute with Byron Allen's Entertainment Studios was in the best interest of both Comcast and its shareholders, including the NYC pension funds with over 9 million shares.

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Stringer said that he is as worried about Comcast winning the suit as losing, since he said a win could damage the company's reputation and name "if it becomes associated with a Supreme Court decision that sets back the civil rights landscape in our country," including damaging relationships with "shareholders, customers, suppliers, and federal, state and local governments."

The Supreme Court earlier this month heard oral argument in Comcast's challenge to a court decision on a suit spearheaded by Entertainment Studios chief Byron Allen against Comcast for allegedly discriminating in its non-carriage of networks. The lower court rejected Comcast's motion to dismiss the suit.

Allen and the National Association of African American Owned Media brought the suit in 2015, claiming damages of $20 billion. A federal court dismissed the suit three times, but the decision was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit a year ago. Comcast wants the Supreme Court to reverse the Circuit Court decision, disputing Allen’s claims of a “vast conspiracy” to keep his networks off, pointing to the carriage of Revolt, among other nets, as evidence.

Allen applauded Stringer's letter in a statement.

"I am very proud of New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer and would like to congratulate him for standing up and defending the civil rights of over 100 million minorities in America against Brian Roberts and Comcast....As I have communicated from the beginning, I remain open and willing to meet with Brian Roberts to resolve this matter immediately – before millions of Americans suffer the loss of our oldest and one of our most important civil rights."

“As the actual Supreme Court hearing demonstrated, this case centers on a narrow, technical point of law that will not in any way lessen the nation’s civil rights laws," the company said in a statement. "Comcast believes that the civil rights laws are an essential tool for protecting the rights of African-Americans and other diverse communities —and we do not want to see them changed or weakened in any way. This case will not do that. Our advocacy was limited to urging that section 1981 be applied to our case in the same way it has been applied by other courts for decades. This case is about applying the laws consistently, not changing them. Comcast has a strong civil rights and diversity record and an outstanding history of supporting and fostering diverse programming from African-American owned channels. Based on the oral argument, any fears that this case would have broad implications on civil rights enforcement have been proven unfounded. Mr. Allen can drop his $20 billion lawsuit at any time and this case will go away.”

The legal point Comcast is making, and the one that has critics accusing it of seeking to erode civil rights law, is that discrimination would have to be the "but for" cause of non-carriage, not simply a factor, and that the real "but for" was that the cable operator would have carried the networks but for the fact that there were solid business reasons not to, a point Allen strongly disputes. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.