ESPN seeks to dismiss Sage Steele’s free speech lawsuit

ESPN seeks to dismiss Sage Steele’s free speech lawsuit

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ESPN filed a motion Thursday to dismiss the lawsuit of prominent on-air personality and “SportsCenter” host Sage Steele, who is suing the sports network for violating her free speech rights.

Steele alleged in a lawsuit filed in April that her right to free speech was violated after she was removed from assignments over comments she made on a podcast last year about former president Barack Obama’s racial identity and ESPN’s vaccine mandate, which she called “sick” and “scary.”

ESPN’s filing asked the Connecticut Superior Court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Steele cannot demonstrate she was punished because her pay was never docked. ESPN also argued that it is not legally responsible for how co-workers and others responded to Steele’s comments and that the company has its own right to expression that includes who it puts on the air.

“Removing Steele from broadcasts, allowing her co-workers to forgo appearing with her, and allegedly conditioning her return to those broadcasts on her issuing an apology are casting decisions that are considered conduct furthering ESPN’s protected expression,” the filing read.

ESPN declined to comment.

After the publication of this story, Steele’s lawyer, Bryan Freedman, issued a statement accusing ESPN of leaking Steele’s personal information, including her salary.

“The current leadership at Disney continues to denigrate talent disregarding not only their first amendment rights but also employee privacy,” he said. “The motion has no merit and will be dismissed, as should the leadership at Disney for engaging in this outrageous conduct.”

Last fall, Steele appeared on the podcast of former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler and called the coronavirus vaccine mandate from ESPN’s parent company, Disney, “sick” and “scary.” She then contrasted her own racial identity, which she said was biracial, with Obama identifying as Black.

“I think that’s fascinating considering his Black dad was nowhere to be found but his White mom and grandma raised him,” she said. “But, hey, you do you. I’m going to do me.”

Steele also said that female journalists share in the responsibility for preventing harassment on the job. “When you dress like that, I’m not saying you deserve the gross comments, but you know what you’re doing when you’re putting that outfit on, too,” she said.

In her lawsuit, Steele alleged that in response to the comments, ESPN stripped her of assignments and didn’t protect her from harassment from colleagues who criticized her on social media. Ryan Clark, an NFL analyst, declined to appear on the air with her, she alleged.

Because of a quirk in Connecticut law that extends first amendment protections to the private sector, several legal experts were intrigued by the legal analysis the case presented.

ESPN argued that not intervening in personality conflicts did not amount to the company disciplining Steele.

“Steele’s comments upset several of her colleagues,” the company’s motion said. “She may be unhappy that her co-workers disliked what she said, but ‘personality conflicts at work that generate antipathy and snubbing by . . . co-workers will not meet [the] standard’ for discipline.”

The motion also responded to Steele’s claims of lost assignments, which included not appearing at an ESPN conference highlighting the work of women in sports and a V Foundation event to support cancer research. According to the filing, it was the public relations team for Halle Berry, who was scheduled to be interviewed by Steele at the women’s event, that did not want Berry to be interviewed by Steele because of her controversial comments.

The motion also alleged that the organizers of the V Foundation fundraiser asked ESPN to remove Steele from her duties at the event because they perceived her comments about the coronavirus vaccine to be “anti-science.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, Steele, 49, has continued as a host on ESPN, leading to the unusual situation of a high-profile TV star suing the network on which she appears. The lawsuit has been viewed internally at ESPN with some confusion. Steele signed a lengthy contract extension several years ago that expires in 2024. She makes around $3 million a year, according to two people with knowledge of her salary, and is the highest-paid female talent at the network.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Steele’s attorney.

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