On November 10, 2016, a California federal judge dismissed a putative class-action lawsuit designed to force the Classifications and Rating Administration (CARA) to give an “R” rating to any film containing tobacco use. Alleging that around 200,000 young people would start smoking every year after seeing tobacco use in G, PG, and PG-13 rated movies, the plaintiff in Forsyth v. Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. sued the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) (CARA is operated as a division of the association), the National Association of Theater Owners, and various major movie studios. Because injunctive relief alone isn’t enough in most class actions, the complaint also sought $20 million in damages.
Searching for a cause of action, the plaintiff used a spaghetti-against-the-wall approach, pleading, among other claims, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, fraudulent misrepresentation, false advertising, and private and public nuisance. The crux of his argument is that as of at least 2003, the defendants knew that children’s exposure to tobacco use in films rated under R is “one of the major causes of children becoming addicted to nicotine.” Therefore, the defendants breached duties, made misrepresentations, committed false advertising, and caused a nuisance by failing to rate any film with tobacco use lower than R. As a direct result, the complaint alleges that the defendants “recruited” 4.6 million American children to smoke since 2003, which will inevitably cause 1.5 million tobacco-induced deaths. Therefore, the defendants must pay. The complaint does not, however, explain how an R-rating would actually prevent children from seeing tobacco use in films—many children under the age of 17 watch R-rated films, and any movie rated before the lawsuit would be unaffected (unless the plaintiff’s next action would be an attempt to force MPAA to change its ratings for past movies, like Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians).
Fortunately, the court was able to see through the complaint’s wild assertions, granting both of the defendants’ motions to end the lawsuit, a motion to dismiss and a motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statute. Under anti-SLAPP statutes, if the defendant can demonstrate that the lawsuit arose from an act in furtherance of its First Amendment-protected speech, the plaintiff must demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits. As the court explained, because film ratings are an expression of an opinion about the nature of the film, and not a “certification trademark” as the plaintiff argued, ratings are considered speech under the First Amendment. Further, even if the ratings themselves weren’t considered speech, they clearly further the First Amendment rights of the movie’s creators.
The court then determined whether the plaintiff sufficiently supported his claims to survive the motions to strike and dismiss—the California anti-SLAPP statute’s standard of proof is similar to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6). Addressing each claim in turn, the court quickly and efficiently pointed to their shortcomings: for example, the defendants’ ratings could not be misrepresentations because they were opinions, the defendants had no duty to breach, and any alleged “nuisance” did not affect the plaintiff’s real property rights. Therefore the court granted both of the defendants’ motions, halting the case.
However, the case could continue. While calling the chance “remote,” the court did allow the plaintiff to amend his complaint to cure its many defects. In addition, the plaintiff has the opportunity to appeal the district court’s decision to the class-action-friendly US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Should the plaintiff opt to appeal, the Ninth Circuit should view the case for what it is—a desperate attempt by one man to impose his morality on the film industry—and affirm the district court.
Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor site.