Theater owners can't be forced to install special equipment to help those with hearing and vision disabilities enjoy the movies, a federal judge has ruled.
Judge Roslyn Silver has tossed out efforts by Attorney General Terry Goddard to force Harkins Theatres to install special technology at more of its theaters around the state.
The judge said nothing in federal or state laws gives Goddard that right.
Silver acknowledged that without those devices there are people who will not have access to many popular movies. And the judge said the anti-discrimination laws are generally designed to ensure that people are not excluded from places of public accommodation.
But Silver said Harkins is not excluding anyone.
And she said what Goddard is asking is that the theater chain actually offer entirely different services to those with hearing and vision problems, something she said the law does not require.
In fact, Silver suggested that what Goddard is demanding stretches the logical intent of the law.
The lawsuit, filed in 2006, said none of the 262 screens the company operated at the time - there arenow more than 300 - offers "closed caption" technology where hearing-impaired patrons can get special equipment that displays the dialogue being spoken by actors on the screen.
Assistant Attorney General Rose Daly-Rooney said in the lawsuit that would not be necessary if there were sufficient offerings with open captions, where the dialogue is visible to all at the screening.
But she said Harkins, which does offer some open-caption movies, does not provide a sufficient range.
And Daly-Rooney said there are no options at all for those who are visually impaired: None of the Harkins theaters offers "descriptive narration," where someone describes the action occurring on the screen to those who are blind or have limited vision.
Those gaps, according to the lawsuit, put the theater chain in violation of state laws that prohibit discrimination by places of public accommodation.
The lawsuit asked Silver to order Harkins to set up more of its 340 theaters statewide - there are 422 nationally - to be able to provide both captioning and descriptivenarration services to patrons as well as a $5,000 penalty against the chain.
Silver said the Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination "on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment" of services.
But she said that language must "be interpreted to have some practical, common-sense boundaries."
She said that has been the conclusion of other federal courts.
"The unvarnished and sober truth is that in many, if not most, cases, the disabled simply will not have the capacity or the ability to enjoy the goods and services of an establishment 'fully' and 'equally' compared to the non-disabled," Silver quoted from a 2000 federal appellate court ruling.
"Simply stated, equal access does not mean equal enjoyment," the judge wrote.
Silver also said the requirements of the state's anti-discrimination laws are no broader than the federal ones she said do not require the special accommodations.
Andrea Esquer, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said an appeal is being filed in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Esquer would not commenton how the ruling might affect aparallel lawsuit filed by Goddard'soffice against the AMC theater chain.
That case, unlike the one against Harkins, is being handled in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Aside from the Phoenix metropolitan area, Harkins also has theaters in Casa Grande, Flagstaff, Prescott Valley, Sedona and Yuma.
The chain also has theaters in California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, which are not part of this lawsuit.