ESPN filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit made by “SportsCenter” host Sage Steele on Thursday. Steele is suing the Disney-owned sports network for violating her free speech rights protected under the First Amendment.
ESPN’s filing asked Connecticut’s Superior Court to dismiss the case on the grounds that Steele never stopped receiving payment from ESPN, meaning she cannot prove that the company disciplined her. ESPN also claimed that their “creation and broadcast of shows qualifies as protected speech,” arguing that removing Steele from broadcasts or allowing co-workers to forego appearance with her qualifies as freedom of expression.
“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,” said Bryan Freedman, Steele’s attorney, in a written statement. “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.”
ESPN declined to comment at the time of reporting.
Steele’s lawsuit stems from comments she made in September on the podcast “Uncut with Jay Cutler,” hosted by the former NFL quarterback. Steele, who has worked at ESPN since 2007, commented that Disney’s corporate vaccination policy was “sick” and “scary,” adding that she “didn’t want to” get the vaccination but complied to remain on air.
Steele also offered comments on her racial identity when asked about her experiences as a biracial woman. She mentioned that she found it “fascinating” that President Barack Obama had chosen to identify as Black despite having been raised by his white mother and grandmother.
In her lawsuit, Steele alleged that ESPN put pressure on The V Foundation, a cancer charity co-founded by ESPN, to remove Steele from her role as host for a fundraising event in December 2021. Norby Williamson, executive vice president and executive editor of production at ESPN, stated in an affidavit that the decision to remove Steele came from the V Foundation, who viewed Steele’s comments as “anti-science” and in conflict with the foundation’s mission to raise funds for cancer research.
Steele also alleged that ESPN removed her from their annual ESPNW Summit, which she had emceed since 2010. Steele was slated to interview Halle Berry at the summit. ESPN claims that Berry’s public relations team would not let her sut for an interview with Steele because of her comments and the surrounding controversy.