American Idol is making headlines this season, for all of the wrong reasons. Following reports of infighting among the judges, several former contestants are now seeking to file a discrimination lawsuit.
The contestants, who span several seasons, allege that the producers of American Idol have unfairly discriminated against African American contestants by inquiring about arrest records and using them as grounds for disqualification.
According to a letter sent to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Idol producers have “never once publicly disqualified a white or non-black American Idol contestant in the history of the eleven season production." It further states that the contestants were not convicted of the crimes at the time they auditioned, "Yet their personal and professional lives remain permanently and severely impaired by [the show's] continuing violations of our nation's laws."
In addition to the fact that three African-Americans—Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino and Jordin Sparks—have been crowned American Idols, the lawsuit faces an uphill battle for several reasons. For instance, in order to benefit from the California laws banning racial discrimination and making it illegal to inquire about arrest records, the contestants must show that they are indeed employees. Although the classification has not been rigorously tested in the court system, reality television producers generally treat participants on their programs as independent contractors.
Additionally, courts have also traditionally provided producers with wide latitude when it comes to casting decisions. As we previously discussed on the Scarinci Hollenbeck Sports and Entertainment Blog, African American contestants filed a similar lawsuit alleging racial discrimination was behind the shows’ failure to feature a Bachelor or a Bachelorette of color. Although the legal theory differed, the court ultimately found that the First Amendment does protect casting decisions by ABC and The Bachelor’s producers.
“Regulating the casting process necessarily regulates the end product. In this respect, casting and the resulting work of entertainment are inseparable and must both be protected to ensure that the producers' freedom of speech is not abridged," the ruling said.
Will this suit still be standing after the votes are cast? We shall see.