ESPN filed a motion to dismiss Sage Steele’s freedom of speech lawsuit that was filed against the network in April.
ESPN also seeks to establish its own “right to free speech.” The company claims that Halle Berry and the V Foundation did not want to work with Steele.
Steele is signed until 2024. She earns about $3 million per year and “is the highest-paid female talent at the network,” Ben Strauss of the Washington Post reported.
Attorney Bryan Freedman represents the anchor and responded to the motion saying, “Just as it did in the Scarlett Johansson case, Disney responds by trying to shame the person it already has victimized, disclosing facts about Sage’s salary that have nothing at all to do with their legal claims,” Freedman said.
“The current leadership at Disney continues to denigrate talent disregarding not only their first amendment rights but also employee privacy. The motion has no merit and will be dismissed, as should the leadership at Disney for engaging in this outrageous conduct.”
Last year, Disney and Johansson settled for an undisclosed sum. Johansson filed a lawsuit suing the company, which is ESPN’s parent, over royalties above her $20 million base pay that she had lost when Disney released “Black Widow” by streaming it instead of adding it to theaters during the pandemic. Before the case settled, Disney released a statement in which they disclosed her compensation and claimed she was insensitive about COVID-19, the New York Post reported.
Steele sued the company claiming it had infringed on her free speech. Under Connecticut state law, which is ESPN’s base and where Steele lives, an employer may not discipline or discharge an employee because of any exercise of that employee’s First Amendment rights, including free speech, “as long as provided such activity does not substantially or materially interfere with the employee’s bona fide job performance or the working relationship between the employee and the employer.”
One important factor in the case is whether or not it constituted discipline when ESPN “sidelined” Steele after she said Disney’s vaccine mandate was “sick” and said, in part, that women breaking into the industry know what they’re doing “when you’re putting that outfit on.”
She also made remarks on former President Barack Obama’s blackness during a discussion about biracial identity during her appearance on Jay Cutler’s podcast.
However, she said she was proud to identify as biracial; Steele said the following about President Obama identifying as black: “That’s his thing. I think that’s fascinating considering his black dad was nowhere to be found but his white mom and grandma raised him. But hey, you do you, I’m going to do me.”
Following her comments, she was temporarily benched from “Sports Center” and also lost assignments, including her appearance at the annual ESPNW Summit. In her lawsuit, Steele argued that terms like “sidelining” and “benching” were a “euphemism” for suspension and thus punishment. ESPN has disputed this distinction in part because she was not docked pay.