The California Supreme Court has certified a question for review posed by the Ninth Circuit – Is the internet a “place of public accommodation” as described in the California Disabled Persons Act (“DPA”), Civil Code §§ 54, et seq.? The DPA provides at § 54.1(a)(1) that “[i]ndividuals with disabilities shall be entitled to full and equal access, as other members of the general public, to accommodations, advantages, facilities . . . and privileges of . . . places of public accommodation . . . and other places to which the general public is invited.” Finding no resolution in existing California law, the Ninth Circuit asked for guidance on the question of whether DPA’s reference to “places of public accommodation” includes web sites, which, at best, are “non-physical places.”
In Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD) v. Cable News Network (CNN), GLAD filed a class action suit against CNN for failing to provide closed captioning with all of its online videos, and thereby limiting access to those materials by hearing impaired viewers. GLAD alleged violations of DPA and the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, Cal. Civ. Code §§ 51 et seq. (“Unruh Act”) and sought declaratory and injunctive relief. CNN removed the matter to federal court and filed an unsuccessful motion to strike under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. The district court found that the provision of closed captioning did not raise a free speech issue for CNN and it did not address the merits. In a published opinion, the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that forcing CNN to add closed captioning to its news content arose from its freedom of expression because it would necessarily change how CNN presented the news. The court then struck the Unruh Act claim, finding that GLAD had not shown it would probably satisfy the intentional discrimination requirement.
Turning to the DPA claim, the Ninth Circuit concluded that GLAD had demonstrated a probability of success regarding the constitutional and preemption defenses raised by CNN. However, to address the merits of the DPA claim, the court first needed to determine whether the DPA even applied to a “virtual location” on the internet. While the internet was certainly not considered when the DPA was originally passed in 1968, it is also true that, as presently used, internet websites often operate as “non-physical places,” such as stores, classrooms, gaming halls and public forums. Since lower California courts, state and federal, are divided on this issue, the Ninth Circuit certified the question for the California Supreme Court. The increasing importance of the internet for commerce and public discourse demonstrate the potential significance of this ruling, and allow a prediction of multiple amicus briefs.