ESPN files motion to dismiss Sage Steele lawsuit

ESPN has filed a motion to dismiss anchor Sage Steele’s freedom of speech lawsuit against the company.

Included in the motion, in which ESPN seeks to establish its own “right to free speech,” the company says that Halle Berry and the V Foundation did not want to work with Steele.

The motion was first reported by Ben Strauss of the Washington Post, who added separate intel to the story that Steele is signed until 2024, earns about $3 million per year and “is the highest-paid female talent at the network.”

Steele’s attorney Bryan Freedman responded to the motion and the Washington Post story in a statement to the NY Post.

“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.”

Sage Steele
Sage Steele
Getty Images

Last year, Disney settled a lawsuit with Johansson for an undisclosed sum. Johansson had sued the company, which is ESPN’s parent, over royalties above her $20 million base pay that she lost when Disney released “Black Widow” via streaming as opposed to in theaters during the pandemic. Before the litigation was amicably settled, the company put out statements in which they disclosed her compensation and accused her of being insensitive about COVID-19.

An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Steele sued ESPN in April, alleging that the company had infringed on her free speech. ESPN is based in Connecticut, where Steele lives. Under state law, 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 element of the case involves whether or not it constituted discipline when ESPN “sidelined” Steele after she called Disney’s vaccine mandate “sick,” said, in part, of women breaking into the industry that they know what they’re doing “when you’re putting that outfit on” and remarked on former President Barack Obama’s blackness during a discussion about biracial identity in an appearance on Jay Cutler’s podcast.

In context of saying 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.”

Halle Berry's PR team did not want her to collaborate with Sage Steele at the espnW Summit, ESPN said in a court filing.
Halle Berry’s PR team did not want her to collaborate with Sage Steele at the espnW Summit, ESPN said in a court filing.
Getty Images

In the wake of the remarks, Steele was temporarily benched from “SportsCenter” and lost assignments such as appearing at the annual ESPNW Summit. In her suit, 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.

Steele’s suit also claimed that ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark refused to collaborate with her on-air, and that SportsCenter anchor Nicole Briscoe was, contrary to company social media policy, allowed to criticize her on Twitter.

“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,” ESPN said in its motion to dismiss the suit.

ESPN’s motion also pointed to other entities that allegedly did not want to collaborate with Steele.

“The evidence supports that Steele’s conduct disrupted her professional relationships. For example, Steele was scheduled to interview Halle Berry at the 2021 espnW summit,” the motion said. “However, the public relations team associated with Berry would not let her sit for that interview because of the controversy Steele’s comments created. And the organizers for the V Foundation fundraiser asked ESPN to take Steele off the event because they perceived her comments about the COVID-19 Vaccine as ‘anti-science,’ and the Foundation’s mission is to raise funds for cancer research.”

The whole situation has been peculiar, as Steele has remained on-air as co-host on ESPN’s daily noon edition of “SportsCenter” amid the lawsuit.

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