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New Jersey NAACP chapter cancels screening of ‘Harriet,’ citing Comcast’s challenge to civil rights act

Comcast will soon appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that an 1866 Civil Rights Act was wrongly interpreted to loosen standards for filing discrimination lawsuits. Advocacy groups say Comcast's petition could be a blow to civil rights.

This image released by Focus Features shows Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in a scene from the film "Harriet," which opens nationally Nov. 1
This image released by Focus Features shows Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in a scene from the film "Harriet," which opens nationally Nov. 1Read moreGlen Wilson / Focus Features

A South Jersey NAACP chapter has canceled a screening of a film about Harriet Tubman, saying it opposes Comcast’s appeal in a case over the nation’s oldest civil rights law that, if successful, would make it harder to file racial discrimination lawsuits.

Harriet stars Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo as the abolitionist who escaped slavery in Maryland, then returned dozens of times to lead hundreds more to freedom on what became known as the Underground Railroad. It will open Friday, Nov. 1.

The Burlington County NAACP chapter was planning a screening of the movie before its annual fund-raising gala on Saturday, but called it off after learning that Comcast is the parent company of Focus Features, the film’s production company.

Issues with Comcast stem from a $20 billion civil rights lawsuit filed by Hollywood entertainment executive Byron Allen, who claims the cable giant discriminated against him by refusing to carry his channels.

Allen’s lawsuit cites the 1866 act — the first civil rights legislation passed to protect the rights of emancipated blacks after the Civil War — which says African Americans have the same rights as whites in business contracts. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Allen could use the law as a basis for his claims. Comcast is petitioning the U. S. Supreme Court to overturn that decision. A hearing is set for Nov. 13.

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A favorable Comcast decision could make it harder to bring civil rights cases, several legal experts warned, changing how race could be applied in lawsuits involving rents, jobs, and education.

“At stake here is far bigger than Comcast or Mr. Allen," Crystal D. Charley, president of the Southern Burlington County NAACP, said in a statement Thursday. "Our position regarding this case is based on irretrievable harm to black people and other marginalized communities.”

In a statement Sunday, Comcast spokesperson John Demming said:

“We believe that the civil rights laws are an essential tool for protecting the rights of African Americans and other diverse communities. Mr. Allen’s frivolous, baseless claims which a judge … threw out three times as having nothing to do with race — debase and distort those laws."

» READ MORE: Comcast lawsuit in Supreme Court could cause ‘irreparable harm’ to minority protections, NAACP warns

At issue is whether the lower court interpreted the law correctly in determining that race may be one of several factors in a discrimination suit.

Comcast and opponents of the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling say a plaintiff who wants to file a discrimination lawsuit must prove that race was the only motivating factor in an alleged discrimination case.

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Comcast has often contended that race was not a factor in refusing to carry Allen’s channel. Rather it was a business decision, based on poor ratings.

The Trump administration and pro-business groups filed briefs supporting Comcast, while more than a dozen national civil rights organization filed their own briefs saying a Comcast win would weaken discrimination protections.

"The branch decided to take a stand as a long-standing civil rights [law] is being threatened in court by the owner of the film’s production company, Comcast,” Marcus Sibley, the Southern Burlington County NAACP’s spokesperson, told the Burlington County Times, which first reported the canceled screening.