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Sage Steele is suing ESPN, claiming it put her on the sidelines because of vaccine comments

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Sage Steele, a prominent ESPN personality and “SportsCenter” host, sued the sports network and its parent company, Disney, alleging that her right to freedom of expression was violated and she was retaliated against for comments she made on a podcast last year. .

Last fall, Steele appeared on the show by former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, calling Disney’s vaccine mandate “sick” and “scary.” She also contrasted her own racial identity, which she said was biracial, with former President Barack Obama identifying himself as black.

“I think it’s fascinating considering that his black father was nowhere to be found, but his white mother and grandmother raised him,” she said. “But hey, you do. I want to do me.”

In the trial, Steele claimed that ESPN, in response to these comments, deprived her of duties and did not protect her from harassment from colleagues who criticized her on social media. Another refused to perform in the air with her, she claimed.

“In a knee-jerk reaction, ESPN and Disney relied on the misleading characteristics of her comments, bowed to group thinking and forced Steele to publicly apologize and suspended her for a period in October 2021,” the lawsuit reads.

ESPN responded in a statement: “Sage remains a valued contributor to some of ESPN’s highest profile content, including recent Masters broadcasts and anchoring of our SportsCenter dinner. In fact, she was never suspended.”

The news of the case was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Steele hosted “SportsCenter” Thursday afternoon. She is represented by Bryan Freedman, a Los Angeles attorney who represented Megyn Kelly and Chris Cuomo in their high-profile exit from NBC and CNN, respectively.

According to two people familiar with her contract, Steele, 49, has more than two years left on her contract with ESPN. She joined ESPN in 2007.

The trial, several legal observers said, could pose a compelling legal issue due to a peculiarity of Connecticut law. Statute 3151Q, as cited by Steele’s case, extends the protection of the first amendment to the private sector.

“If Sage were a New Jersey employee who worked for a private employer, she would not be able to claim that she was fired or disciplined in violation of her First Amendment rights, as stated herein,” Richard said. Hayber, a partner of the plaintiff. -side employment firm Hayber, McKenna and Dinsmore LLC. “But in Connecticut she can.”

In order for her speech to be protected under the statute, Hayber said, Steele must prove to a judge or jury that her comments about Disney’s vaccine mandate were a matter of general public interest and not just complaints about her own situation.

“For me, vaccine safety is a matter of public interest,” Hayber added.

Steele must also prove that she suffered discipline, as the statute says, even though the term is not specifically defined. Steele is claiming no financial compensation, and ESPN denied that she was suspended. Steele claims in the case that she was told by superiors that she would be “sidelined” and “take a break” after the comments were posted, and that she did not show up at an ESPN conference.

Steven Aronson, a Connecticut lawyer who has defended a number of free speech cases, said he was skeptical of Steele’s case because of what Steele has to prove: that her speech is protected, that she has been subjected to unfavorable job actions due to of that speech and that the speech does not significantly interfere with her work performance.

“She will have a difficult burden of proving all of these elements,” Aronson said. “They could all be disputed.”

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