ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro and Disney CEO Bob Iger were added as defendants in an amended complaint filed by three former ESPN employees who claim the network’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement violated their religious freedom rights.
In the new complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on Wednesday, Mike Ryan, a remote graphics operator who worked at ESPN for 15 years, joined the original two plaintiffs: former ESPN reporter Allison Williams and ex-longtime producer Beth Faber.
All have alleged that ESPN refused to grant them religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine. Ryan described in the complaints as a lifelong Catholic — a religion led by Pope Francis, who has urged followers to get vaccinated.
The amended complaint filed by attorney Christopher Dunn expanded on his attempt to paint ESPN and Disney as government actors. This argument would mean the Equal Protection clause in the 14th Amendment covers the plaintiffs.
Federal courts have consistently upheld companies in the private sector are free to establish and enforce COVID-19 requirements.
The lawsuit alleges defendants Pitaro, Iger, former Disney CEO Bob Chapek, and three current Disney board members — Derica Rice, Susan Arnold, and Francis deSouza — are state actors.
Disney has had a “symbiotic relationship with the Defense Department” that the lawsuit alleges goes back to World War I. This conflict ended nearly three years before the Walt Disney Co. was founded in 1923.
The new complaint made more arguments that attempt to tie ESPN and Disney to the military-industrial complex:
- ESPN’s broadcast deal with the NBA, a league Dunn claims has a partnership with the military that is part of “a much broader campaign” that involves Iger and others.
- Retired General Martin E. Dempsey, a former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has been the chair of USA Basketball’s board of directors since 2016, “interfaced considerably with the NBA” and its deal with ESPN “reflects coercive power, significant encouragement, joint action, agency control, and symbiosis.”
- ESPN was criticized a decade ago when it pulled out of a PBS project that examined concussions in football, but Dunn wrote that ESPN’s reporting on concussions shows there are links between sports leagues and the military.
- Dunn argues the NFL — another ESPN broadcast partner — teamed up with the White House” to promote vaccination because then-press secretary Jen Psaki referenced the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols in a 2021 news conference.
- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose late father served in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, is part of ”the whole-of-government/whole-of-society approach by the military and government to partner” to advocate for vaccination.
- “Pardon the Interruption” host Michael Wilbon watched the Super Bowl from the White House with co-host Tony Kornheiser in 2013. Wilbon also said on PTI to “get your vaccine, get vaccinated!”
- The Disney board member defendants — Rice, Francis, and deSouza — have ties to drug companies or labs that had products aimed to prevent, treat or diagnose COVID-19.
- Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee served in the Army during World War II, and Marvel — acquired by Disney in 2009 — would not have succeeded “without the Pentagon’s support.” Lee died in 2018 at age 95.
“Whether little governments and kingdoms on earth — with policies and procedures of little kingdoms and big governments — or fantasy worlds in the movies featuring military heroes, Disney is entwined with the military and the Defense Department,” Dunn Wrote.