Seeking legal action against your former place of employment is one thing. Happens every day in litigious America. But when you sue the company you’re still working for, that is surprising.
ESPN anchor Sage Steele is suing the company and Disney, alleging that her contract was breached and her free speech rights were violated. The complaint, filed in Connecticut Superior Court, has shocked the sports media world. And in the legal world, the lawsuit has been met with curiosity.
Michael McCann, a University of New Hampshire law professor and Sportico legal writer, described it as ‘very unusual.’
“It’s uncommon to have a current employee sue their employer, just in general,” he said in an interview with Awful Announcing. “So to have someone of that high profile sue the leading sports media company, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that jumps out at me as analogous.”
McCann has seen the suit but said he does not know Steele’s contract status. Ben Strauss of The Washington Post reported that Steele has more than two years remaining on her deal at ESPN. She has been with the sports cable network since 2007.
McCann wonders if this is part of a larger strategy to apply pressure on ESPN.
“Maybe her agent has tried to negotiate her exit,” he said. “Maybe that didn’t (go) well. I don’t know what’s left on her contract. There’s a lot we don’t know. It’s like looking at tinted windows. Conservatively, it’s very unusual.”
McCann added that many other questions remain. We might get some answers when ESPN responds to the suit. McCann said the response will provide “a fuller picture and more context.” It’s also likely that ESPN will file a motion to dismiss.
Steele has been a controversial figure. She called the ESPN vaccine mandate “sick” and “scary to me.” On a podcast with Jay Cutler, a clip went viral of Steele making comments about Barack Obama’s black father. She later apologized and was taken off the air while also testing positive for COVID-19.
The lawsuit, which is posted on the Connecticut Judicial Branch website, claims that “Steele was disciplined by her employer in violation of Connecticut state law because she exercised her First Amendment right to express opinions with which ESPN and Disney do not agree.”
It’s important to note that the First Amendment protects the right to freedom of expression from government interference. The First Amendment does not prohibit private individuals, companies, and employers from restricting speech.
The lawsuit also claims that “ESPN and Disney have continued to punish Steele by removing her from prime assignments.”
McCann said businesses do have authority over the speech of their employees either through employment contracts or workplace policies. However, the state of Connecticut is different. It does have a law that prohibits employers from “disciplining or discharging” employees over speech.
“Connecticut does have a unique law in protecting free speech including among private-sector employees within reason,” McCann said. “‘Within reason’ could end up being crucial here.”
For now, we’ve only heard Steele’s side of the story. It will be interesting and important to see what ESPN does next.
ESPN did release a statement saying: “Sage remains a valued contributor on some of ESPN’s highest-profile content, including the recent Masters telecasts and anchoring our noon SportsCenter. As a point of fact, she was never suspended.”
McCann raised the possibility that this dispute could head to arbitration or mediation.
“With media companies, a lot of them use arbitration clauses to prevent going to court,” he said. “If her employment contract has an arbitration clause, ESPN is going to say: ‘Judge, you have to dismiss this because she is contractually bound to first arbitrate before she can go to court.'”
According to the lawsuit, Steele is seeking damages in excess of $15,000 along with declaratory and other relief.