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Disney Officially Settles First Amendment Lawsuit

ESPN Sage Steele Lawsuit
Credit: Canva; Disney

The Walt Disney Company has had to contend with several first amendment rights cases in recent years. While some have been thrust upon them from outside sources, Disney has argued its own right to free speech in a high-profile cast against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Recently, the governor has pushed to end this lawsuit, calling on Disney to move on or the courts to side in his favor. However, the company has refused to budge on this matter. In another turn of events, Disney has now actually settled a longstanding first amendment lawsuit involving the right to free speech.

Amid the upcoming court battle in which Disney accuses Ron DeSantis of violating its right to expression, the company has chosen to settle with another case involving free speech. Sage Steele, an ESPN television personality and sports anchor, has resolved her legal dispute with the network and cut ties with the company.

espn disney free speech lawsuit

Credit: ESPN/Disney

ESPN Resolves Lawsuit with Sage Steele

Sage Steele has caused a stir in sports media because of her outspoken views on various topics spanning politics, social justice, and race. In September 2021, she made a number of controversial comments on a podcast with former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler that put her in hot water. She criticized ESPN’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and questioned former President Obama’s racial identity, implying that he should not identify as black. She also said that women must “be responsible” for their dress to avoid sexual harassment.

These comments drew the ire of many, and ESPN suspended Steele as a consequence. She later apologized for her remarks but sued ESPN, claiming that her free speech rights had been violated. Her presence on ESPN was then greatly diminished, and her future with the network remained cloudy until this week. Before the conflict, she had participated in various sports programming throughout her career, including SportsCenter, NBA Countdown, and SportsNation.

Sage Steele ESPN

Credit: Jeff Kern, Flickr

Steele Comments on Leaving ESPN

Steele confirmed her departure from ESPN in a tweet in which she expressed her desire to exercise her first amendment rights more freely:

Life update. Having successfully settled my case with ESPN/Disney, I have decided to leave so I can exercise my first amendment rights more freely.  I am grateful for so many wonderful experiences over the past 16 years and am excited for my next chapter!

While the terms of the agreement were not made public, ESPN and Disney did provide a comment on the settlement. A spokesperson for the company made a statement to CNN:

ESPN and Sage Steele have mutually agreed to part ways. We thank her for her many contributions over the years.

Disney and First Amendment Rights

Disney is all too familiar with first amendment cases in recent years. The company recently lost a high-profile lawsuit when it went to the Supreme Court in June 2023. The case, Altschul v. Disney, involved a trademark infringement accusation brought by Randice-Lisa Altschul, the creator of a stuffed bear, Lots of Hugs. Altschul alleged that Disney’s Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear character from Pixar’s Toy Story 3 movie infringed on her trademark. The justices agreed.

Disney's loss at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court/ Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear from Toy Story 3. Credit: Flickr Thomas Hawk/ Disney Pixar

Furthermore, its ongoing battle with Governor Ron DeSantis sees Disney as the one claiming its right to free speech has been violated. The lawsuit alleges that DeSantis is retaliating against the company for opposing the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill. With the Florida governor eyeing a bid at the White House, the lawsuit is being watched extensively.

The Walt Disney Company has navigated some tough challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has wrestled with its image due to these legal battles amid having trouble at the box office. Many of its high-budget films have performed poorly, and its Park attendance has been arguably lower this summer as Florida wrestles with intense heat and controversial laws. The ESPN Sage Steele lawsuit was just another battle to overcome.

About Michael Stoyanoff

Michael is a Disney fan with an entertainment background and passion for writing. Living in Orlando, he has been around the theme parks for over a decade. In his free time he enjoys running, playing video games, and traveling the world. He also loves hanging out with his dog, Mr. Pippers the Pug.

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