Lahren Wrongful Termination Lawsuit Questions Media, Free Speech

Last month, outspoken conservative political pundit Tomi Lahren went on the morning talk show The View. To the surprise of many, Lahren made comments in support of abortion rights. “I am someone who is for limited government, so I can’t sit here and be a hypocrite and say I’m for limited government but I think the government should decide what women do with their bodies,” she argued. “I’m for limited government, so stay out of my guns, and stay out of my body as well.” Her words were met with surprise from both ends of the political spectrum and upset many of her right-wing followers. Five days after her appearance on The View, conservative media outlet The Blaze suspended Lahren from her position within their network. Company head Glenn Beck tweeted that same day, “I will never and have never fired someone for their [point of view].” Less than a week later, however, The New York Post reported that Lahren had lost her job.

On April 7, Lahren filed a lawsuit against both The Blaze and Glenn Beck. She asserted that her firing is a case of wrongful termination, claiming she was let go due to her pro-choice views. Lahren’s camp has also made allegations of defamation based on claims that The Blaze has “embarked on a smear campaign” to ruin her reputation.

Oddly, The Blaze is saying that Lahren has not been fired at all. “It is puzzling that an employee who remains under contract (and is still being paid) has sued us for being fired, especially when we continue to comply fully with the terms of our agreement with her,” a spokesperson told Buzzfeed. Moreover, Lahren’s author page remains up on The Blaze’s website. Lahren then countered that The Blaze is effectively firing her by suspending her until her contract is up in September and that she is unable to work elsewhere until then.

As it stands now, this is an intriguing and complicated lawsuit. The most immediate question it raises is simple: Does Lahren have a case? First, Lahren and her lawyers have to prove that The Blaze did indeed fire her; if they can’t convince a judge that an indefinite suspension until her contract ends is the same as firing her, their case is dead in the water. This will be up to the judge’s discretion, but the obstacles to her case do not stop at her standing.

In the United States, a firing of an employee qualifies as wrongful termination mainly when the motivation for the firing is either discriminatory or retaliatory (usually for whistleblowing). The anti-discriminatory aspect of wrongful termination only applies to “protected classes” – of which political affiliation is not one. So even if Lahren can prove she was fired directly because of her pro-choice views, it wouldn’t fall under the wrongful termination protections in place.

However, according to Forbes legal analyst Philip Bonoli, Lahren does have a shot at challenging for a breach of contract decision. Essentially, it will depend on the specific language of Lahren’s contract and how much freedom it gives The Blaze to keep her off air as they see fit. The Blaze can claim they are justified in their actions because Lahren’s comments could potentially harm their overall brand as a company. Indeed, The Blaze is marketed as a conservative media outlet, and Glenn Beck has never been shy about his political affiliation. Lahren’s pro-choice comments are not only left-leaning but address a topic particularly incendiary for religious conservatives and could theoretically drive some viewers away from the network. At best, it appears Lahren can only hope for a settlement from The Blaze, who would likely win the case but may choose to settle anyway to avoid more bad PR.

While it is important that media personalities are responsible with what they say given their massive platforms, the point at which irresponsible becomes unforgivable seems arbitrary at best.

Lahren’s suit isn’t the only one of its kind, either. Just last February, tennis announcer Doug Adler sued ESPN after saying Venus Williams plays with – depending on the listener’s interpretation – either a “guerrilla effect” or “gorilla effect,” claiming his firing was unjust and has done him “serious financial and emotional harm.” His case is still ongoing. Last year, a news station in Pittsburgh fired anchor Wendy Bell after she made racially insensitive comments on a company Facebook account. She, too, sued for wrongful termination, saying she would not have been fired if she were not white; as of last February her case was still open. The comparison here is far from perfect, as there is a world of difference between racist comments and pro-choice comments, and Lahren’s comments were more separate from her work than Adler’s or Bell’s. But the legal question remains the same in essence: Does a media company hold the right to fire its employees for public comments the company deems harmful? There doesn’t seem to be any closed cases that rule definitively on this one way or the other, but the facts are that political affiliation isn’t a protected class by the EEOC and the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private companies; thus, it seems unlikely that Lahren will win her case outright.

Even if Lahren’s lawsuit and others like it fizzle out in the end, this situation brings up questions about how much freedom media personalities have to share their personal opinions. Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, Lahren still appears to have lost her job over a political belief she shared on a public forum. Will other media personalities now be more careful not to state political beliefs that misalign or conflict with those of the network that employs them? Are some already doing so? Ideally, personalities doing political analysis should be able to profess the political beliefs they genuinely believe in. If political show hosts simply parrot the opinions deemed “correct” by their respective networks – some cynics would say this already is the case – the value of this type of programming becomes unclear.

Moreover, at what point do we deem an “incorrect” opinion worthy of costing a media host their job? Some conservatives expressed anger at Lahren’s comments, with one blogger referring to her words as “mindlessly incoherent” and “stupidity on steroids.” To some on the right, being pro-choice is deathly immoral, while those on the left might be more inclined to say Lahren should not lose her job over this. So where is the line drawn? It’s hard to envision a scenario where many people would defend a host for saying something overtly racist or using slurs publicly and would have a problem with their show getting cancelled. While it is important that media personalities are responsible with what they say given their massive platforms, the point at which irresponsible becomes unforgivable seems arbitrary at best.

Tomi Lahren probably won’t get far in her case against The Blaze and Glenn Beck. Her claims for wrongful termination stand on weak legal ground, and both parties will likely hope to settle out of court and avoid negative publicity. Still, the controversy around her pro-choice comments and subsequent ousting from The Blaze have certainly brought some issues to light. What we expect from media personalities on all sides of the political spectrum is ill-defined as the line between political analyst and entertainer grows blurrier and blurrier. The actions of The Blaze may not reflect on the media industry as a whole, but do reveal the types of concerns certain outlets have and the lengths at which they will go to protect a certain brand image. Tomi Lahren’s popularity means she almost certainly will land a gig elsewhere once her current situation is sorted out, but doesn’t answer these questions of journalistic freedom.