Conservative-backed lawsuit takes aim at alleged diversity quotas in Hollywood

<span>Brian Beneker, a script coordinator for Seal Team, is represented by America First Legal Foundation, backed by Stephen Miller.</span><span>Photograph: CBS</span>
Brian Beneker, a script coordinator for Seal Team, is represented by America First Legal Foundation, backed by Stephen Miller.Photograph: CBS

CBS Studios and its parent company Paramount have been sued by a writer for Seal Team alleging discrimination through the network’s diversity quotas, in what is probably the opening lawsuit against efforts to improve diversity in Hollywood following the supreme court’s decision to dismantle affirmative action.

Brian Beneker, a script coordinator for Seal Team, filed the lawsuit in California federal court on Wednesday, and is represented by a legal group funded by the former Trump adviser and far-right anti-immigration activist Stephen Miller.

Related: US supreme court rules against affirmative action in Harvard and UNC cases

Beneker alleges that he was repeatedly denied a staff writer job on the show after the implementation of an “illegal policy of race and sex balancing” that supported the hiring of “less qualified applicants who were members of more preferred groups”, namely women, racial minorities and those who identify as LGBTQ+. He seeks at least $500,000 and a court order making him a full-time producer on the series as well as barring any further diversity-based hiring practices.

Beneker is represented by the America First Legal Foundation which, backed by Miller, has filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging corporate diversity practices afoul of civil rights guidelines against such major companies as Starbucks, McDonald’s and Morgan Stanley.

Beneker’s suit against CBS is the organization’s first of this kind against an entertainment company, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The suit comes less than a year after the supreme court ruled against affirmative action in Students for Fair Admissions v Harvard. In that case, the court ruled that the university’s diversity guidelines for admission, which included race, violated the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Though the ruling did not directly affect companies, which are governed by separate sets of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, experts anticipated a wave of lawsuits against corporate diversity practices.

Beneker, who has worked as a script coordinator for Seal Team since 2017 and occasionally wrote some episodes as a freelancer, alleges in the complaint that he was passed over for hiring as staff writer multiple times in favor of Black or female candidates, who he claims had less experience. Per the complaint, when Beneker asked a superior in 2019 why a Black writer was hired instead of him, he was told that CBS needed to meet diversity quotas for its writers’ room. He further claims that since 2020, when Bedeker says he was assured he would get a staff position, the show has hired six additional writers, all female.

“During Season 6 (in approximately May of 2022), two female writer’s assistants, without any writing credits, were hired as staff writers,” the complaint says. “The first of these two hires was black. The second identified as lesbian.”

According to the CBS Entertainment Group’s CEO, George Cheeks, in a 2022 interview, the network set a goal that all writers’ rooms on primetime series must consist of at least 40% minorities for the 2021-2022 season, and that 17 of 21 shows hit or exceeded that target. That goal was pushed to half of all series for the 2022-2023, as part of an effort to “more accurately reflect diversity both on-screen and behind-the-camera”.

The suit claims that such practices “created a situation where heterosexual, white men need ‘extra’ qualifications (including military experience or previous writing credits) to be hired as staff writers when compared to their nonwhite, LGBTQ, or female peers”.

The complaint claims violations of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination in the making of private contracts, and title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion and other characteristics. The complaint further questions the legality of corporate diversity, equity and inclusion programs that specifically address race, many of which were implemented or bolstered after the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.