ESPN seeks to dismiss Sage Steele’s free speech lawsuit

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ESPN seeks to dismiss Sage Steele's free speech lawsuit

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

Steele claimed in a lawsuit filed in April that her right to free speech was violated after she was accused of comments she made on a podcast last year about former President Barack Obama’s racial identity and ESPN’s vaccination mandate, which she described as “sick.” referred to, had been removed from tasks was “creepy.”

ESPN’s filing asked the Connecticut Supreme Court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Steele could not show she was punished because her salary was never docked. ESPN also argued that it is not legally responsible for how employees and others reacted to Steele’s comments and that the company has its own right to speech, which includes who it broadcasts.

“Removing Steele from shows, allowing her colleagues to refrain from appearing with her, and allegedly conditioning her return to those shows if she apologizes are casting decisions deemed behavior that protected the.” encourages ESPN’s opinion,” the filing reads.

ESPN declined to comment.

Following the publication of that story, Steele’s attorney, Bryan Freedman, issued a statement accusing ESPN of disclosing Steele’s personal information, including her salary.

“Current leadership at Disney continues to vilify talent and disregard not only their first modification rights, but also employee privacy,” he said. “The motion is without merit and is dismissed, as is Disney’s leadership for this outrageous conduct.”

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

“I find that fascinating considering his black father was nowhere to be found but his white mother and grandma raised him,” she said. “But hey, you’re making yourself. I’ll take care of myself.”

Steele also said women journalists have a responsibility to prevent workplace harassment. “If you dress like this, I’m not saying you deserve the rude comments, but you also know what you’re doing when you put on this outfit,” she said.

In her lawsuit, Steele alleged that ESPN withdrew her assignments in response to the comments and failed to protect her from harassment from colleagues who criticized her on social media. Ryan Clark, an NFL analyst, declined to go on the air with her, she claimed.

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

ESPN argued that failure to intervene in personality conflicts does not result in the company disciplining Steele.

“Steele’s comments have upset several of her colleagues,” the company’s filing reads. “She may be unhappy that her co-workers didn’t like what she said, but ‘personal conflicts at work that provoke antipathy and snubs. . . Colleagues will not meet [the] standard’ for discipline.”

The motion also responded to Steele’s claims of lost assignments, including failing to appear at an ESPN conference highlighting the work of women in sport and a V Foundation event to support cancer research. According to the filing, it was the PR team for Halle Berry, who was scheduled to be interviewed by Steele at the women’s event, who didn’t want Berry to be interviewed by Steele because of her controversial comments.

The filing also alleged that organizers of the V Foundation fundraiser had asked ESPN to remove Steele from her duties at the event because they found her comments on the coronavirus vaccine “anti-scientific.”

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

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

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