Written by Ravi Sattiraju on August 20, 2018
Disney director James Gunn is only the latest worker fired from his job because of offensive tweets, joining a long line that includes comedienne Roseanne Barr and journalist Kevin Williamson. In this case, Gunn wasn’t fired for recent tweets but for tweets, he had sent a decade before. But after an independent journalist unearthed the tweets, Disney fired Gunn, a decision that has proven controversial.
In mid-July, right-wing commentator Mike Cernovich and journalist Jack Posobiec posted images of some Gunn tweets from 2008-2011, in which the director apparently was making light of pedophilia and rape. He also made offensive jokes about the Holocaust. Gunn had deleted the tweets, but the journalists posted images they had found.
Gunn did not deny the tweets. However, he did put them in context by claiming to be a provocateur who said outrageous things. He also claimed to have regretted writing them, admitting that they were “stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped.” The tweets soon caught the attention of other right-wing commentators on Twitter and were soon picked up by the mainstream media.
Disney quickly moved to terminate Gunn and kick him off the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Although people have a First Amendment right to free expression, this right only prevents the government from punishing you. It does not prohibit private companies like Disney from firing an employee.
In fact, large private companies must always protect their reputation. As a family-friendly corporation, Disney obviously did not want to be associated with someone who made light of pedophilia. Though many of Gunn’s enemies used these tweets to argue that he was personally a pedophile, no proof of inappropriate behavior ever came to light. Nevertheless, the jokes themselves were so tasteless that Disney’s decision to fire him from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 was understandable.
Under the laws in 49 states, an employee is “at will,” meaning an employer can fire them at any time and for any reason. A few exceptions apply. For example, an employer cannot discriminate against someone for a protected characteristic, such as race, color, religion, gender, or disability. Some states, like California, also protect against discrimination on the grounds of political expression, but it is unlikely that jokes about pedophilia would qualify for protection.
However, as a film director, Gunn probably signed a contract with Disney. This contract could also provide him with additional rights—though it is difficult to determine what rights without seeing the contract. For example, Gunn’s contract might state he can be terminated only for “good cause,” but the contract could define good cause broadly. Because his new-found notoriety could sink a family franchise like Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn might not be protected by his contract.
Concerned about Prior Tweets? Contact an Experienced Employment Lawyer
With the rise of social media, many employees are now frantically deleted offensive old tweets before they fall in the wrong hands. Many businesses, large and small, are also working to protect their corporate image in the marketplace.
If you have a question about terminating an employee for offensive speech, you should consult with an experienced New Jersey employment lawyer right away. At the Sattiraju Law Firm, P.C., we represent employees and businesses in New York and New Jersey, and we are happy to answer any questions you have.