Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer, Saturday, February 4, 2012
A federal magistrate has refused to dismiss a suit by deaf Californians against CNN for its refusal to add closed captioning to news video clips on its website. The lawsuit only alleges discrimination in the way the network delivers its news online and is not an attack on free speech, U.S. Magistrate Laurel Beeler of Oakland said Thursday.
The suit accuses CNN and its owner, Time Warner, of violating state disability laws by denying full online access to more than 100,000 Californians who are functionally deaf. CNN provides closed captions on television, as required by federal law, but its CNN.com website does not caption the brief video segments that make up most of its programming. The network had argued that closed captioning can cause delays and inaccuracies and should be imposed, if at all, only by government regulations that cover all online news outlets. Thomas Burke, a lawyer for the network, said in court papers that requiring a single news organization to use expensive technology would violate the First Amendment. He also argued that CNN acted within its "free-speech rights when it decided not to unilaterally use closed-captioning technology for Internet videos that would violate its editorial practices."
Lawyers for the deaf said modern closed captioning is both fast and accurate and would not affect CNN's message. At Thursday's hearing, Beeler said the suit could proceed because it was unrelated to the content of the newscasts and was directed instead at their delivery in a form that the plaintiffs could understand. The ruling leaves other issues unresolved, such as whether CNN is bound to follow California's disability law or can rely on federal law, which does not require closed captioning of online video clips.
The Federal Communications Commission recently ordered captioning for full-length video programs on Internet newscasts, but its regulations do not cover video clips that last two or three minutes, said plaintiffs' attorney Laurence Paradis of Disability Rights Advocates. Nevertheless, he said, the ruling should send a message to CNN and other networks that they are bound by civil rights laws. "This case is going to set the precedent for the whole industry," Paradis said. CNN did not respond to requests for comment.
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