Less than a week before Comcast and Department of Justice lawyers will face off against Byron Allen in the Supreme Court in the Entertainment Studios boss’ $20 billion discrimination lawsuit against the NBCUniverisal owner, a prominent member of Congress now wants the telecommunications giant brought down to size.
“Comcast has enjoyed the largesse – as has the cable industry, in general – of the AfricanAmerican and other minority communities and has reached such prominence that it now disregard these communities with a cold, callous corporate insensitivity that is stultifying, arrogant, harmful, and intensely painful,” writes Rep. Bobby Rush in a letter last night to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts that Deadline has obtained.
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“Simply put, it is my belief that the Comcast Corporation needs to be broken up,” declares the long serving Illinois Democratic Congressman, who sits on the influential Energy and Commerce committee and chairs its consumer protection subcommittee.
Similar to statements by Presidential hopefuls Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and other members of Congress, Rep. Rush is dismayed that Philadelphia-based Comcast in its battle with Allen has gotten in bed with the Trump Administration to force a potentially pivotal change to Civil War era passed civil rights enhancing legislation in the case that is to be heard before the nine justices on November 13.
While Congress doesn’t directly have the power to shatter corporate empires, they certainly have the power to hold hearings, issue subpoenas and shine a very bright spotlight on the likes of Roberts and Comcast. Of course, such a spotlight can put pressure on the executive branch to take action too, regardless of if it is a Republican or Democrat in the White House. Known to be close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it also wasn’t’ an accident that Rep. Rush cc’d Attorney General Bill Barr, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission in his correspondence to CEO Roberts of November 7, if you know what I mean?
In a dust-up with long term political, civil rights and corporate implications in which the likes of the NAACP, the ACLU, National Urban League and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, among others, have come out swinging against Comcast, the symbolism of Rush’s declaration could hold great weight.
“Comcast’s actions today call into question why it signed Memoranda of Understanding (hereafter, memoranda) on diversity with the Asian American Justice Center, East West Players, Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, Japanese American Citizens League, Media Action Network, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Action Network, National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, National Hispanic Media Coalition, National Urban League, and Organization of Chinese Americans,” Rush notes in his letter to Roberts. “Further, we must note that these memoranda were instrumental in securing the support of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus for its acquisition of NBC Universal. The contradictory nature of its legal argument leads me to believe that these memoranda were signed merely for political expediency.”
Once a very vocal proponent of Comcast’s acquisition of an initial majority stake in NBCUniversal almost a decade ago, the turn of Chicago Congressman Rush, who is known to joke that he is the only person to ever beat Barack Obama in an election, puts the company clearly on the defensive.
“There is no major media company in America that has done more to promote diverse programming than Comcast,” a spokesperson for the company told Deadline in response to Rep. Rush’s letter.
“We’ve gone above and beyond the MOUs from the NBCUniversal transaction in every case. While Byron Allen chose not to participate in the MOU process that brought four African American owned networks on to our cable lineups, entrepreneurs who started the channels ASPiRE, REVOLT, AFRO, and CLEO TV, have all launched with our support. Our film divisions are making films like Us, Get Out, Straight Outta Compton, Harriet, Girls Trip, Little, and Queen and Slim, all with African American directors and stars. We’ve dramatically increased on air and behind the camera diversity across all of NBCUniversal.”
“We believe that the civil rights laws are an essential tool for protecting the rights of African-Americans and other diverse communities,” Comcast further states. “We have been forced to appeal this decision to defend against a meritless $20 billion claim, but have kept our argument narrowly focused. We are not seeking to roll back any civil rights laws – all we are asking is that section 1981 in our case be interpreted the same way it has been interpreted for decades across the country.”
While Comcast avoided Rush’s throwing down of the gauntlet of corporate disintegration, Byron Allen has a much more concise reaction.
“I am highly confident that if Comcast shows up in the U.S. Supreme Court next week to challenge the civil rights of over 100 million Americans, Comcast will be broken up,” the mogul asserts.
Having first sued Comcast and a number of other companies a few years back on the premise that they had violated the Civil Rights Act after he unsuccessfully tried for years to get the cablers to carry his networks, Allen saw mixed results. Now WarnerMedia-owning AT&T settled, but in the cases with Comcast and Charter, Entertainment Studios suffered a series of losses in other cases. However, in February, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Comcast and Charter’s motion to toss the multibillion-dollar civil rights lawsuit against them. Quickly, Comcast moved to take the matter before Chief Justice John Roberts (no relation to CEO Brian Roberts) before it went back to the trial courts.
With lobbyists galore in the nation’s capital, Comcast suddenly was handed an early Christmas present from the Trump administration on August 15, when the DOJ filed a brief in the matter that seeks to tighten the definitions of the Reconstruction Era statute in the City of Brotherly Love-based corporation’s favor.
The feds’ brief frames the statute to require that Entertainment Studios has to prove race was not merely a motivating factor, as the 9th Circuit interpreted the statute earlier this summer, but the only factor – a near impossible standard, especially without direct access to corporate documents. In a very rare move, Comcast are handing over 10 minutes of their time before the SCOTUS for Solicitor General Noel Francisco and DOJ lawyers argue the matter before the increasingly conservative court.
All of which makes the stakes all the greater next Wednesday.
Allen and Entertainment Studios are represented in the case by a team from Miller Bardondess LLP and University of California Berkeley School of Law’s Erwin Chemerinsky. Attorneys from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP are working for Comcast in the matter.