Ben Stein is an actor who often appears at conservative conferences and events — often speaking against such things as global warming. Stein’s hard-right politics has made him a hero for conservatives and a villain for liberals. Now, however, he is suing after a company decided that his political advocacy undermined his value as a spokesman. While some conservatives might view such discrimination lawsuits and emotional distress claims as another sign of our litigious society, Stein is suing Japanese company Kyocera Corporation and the New York ad agency Seiter & Miller for the loss of a $300,000 gig. He says that Kyocera then tapped a University of Maryland economics professor whom his lawsuit portrays as a Stein lookalike or clone. Stein declares in his lawsuit that he is “the most famous economics teacher in the world.” Sure there were Adam Smith, John Kenneth Galbraith, and John Maynard Keynes. There were even people like Karl Marx who fashioned themselves as well known economists. But none of them appeared in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
The former Nixon screenwriter claims that Kyocera dumped him after learning about his views on global warming. They reneged on the deal and replaced him after the company found out that he isn’t sure humans are responsible for climate change. Many liberals have been miffed about the use of Stein by Comcast, Clear Eyes and Hewlett-Packard despite his outspoken political views. For my part, I never understood the fascination with Stein who has made a career of a rather overused and thread-bare nerdy character schtick.
Stein says that the company was drawn to his economics background and has made the offer to work in commercials and appear at events. The lawsuit alleges that “[t]he only points still under discussion — but not in dispute — were what kind of tea and other snacks [Stein] would have on the set.” However, the company appears to have been unaware of Stein’s political activities and specifically his conservative views opposing environmental measures. When asked, Stein told the company through his agent “that, as a matter of religious belief, he believed that God, and not man, controlled the weather.”
His lawsuit appears to suggest that Stein holds the monopoly on the nerdy economist persona: “In an astonishingly brazen misappropriation of [Stein’s] persona, [they] dressed him up as Stein often appeared in commercials (bow tie, glasses, sports jacket).”
Stein is demanding $300,000, costs and fees and (that rallying point for all conservatives) punitive damages.
Stein is not the first to claim the right to an image. Our courts have reached similarly bizarre results in some cases. Past tort cases have generally favored celebrities and resulted in rulings like White v. Samsung, a perfectly ludicrous ruling where Vanna White successfully sued over the use of a robot with a blond wig turning cards as the appropriation of her name or likeness. Notably, however, Stein does not bring an actual commercial appropriation of name or likeness. He does, however, object to the use of a nerdy economist when he is — it appears — cornered the market on nerdy.
What is striking about the lawsuit is the view that actors should be able to associate themselves with controversial causes but sue over a company’s refusal to use them because of their damaged image in the eyes of some customers. While Stein believes he has a lock on the nerdy professor look, he does not believe that his equally public persona as a conservative activist should be used against him.
Stein has been outspoken against not just environmental protections but on subjects ranging from religion to Nixon. He has every right to do so, but he also claims the right to celebrity contracts despite his increasingly controversial persona. On evolution, he called it “a painful, bloody chapter in the history of ideologies.” He has suggested evolution lead to genocide and often uses Nazi references against people like Barack Obama. It is difficult to maintain a faux image as a respected intellectual while espousing such views. Here is what he said on religion:
Stein: When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers, talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.
Crouch: That’s right.
Stein: …Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.
Crouch: Good word, good word.
Here is what he said on Richard Nixon:
Can anyone even remember now what Nixon did that was so terrible? . . .He lied so he could stay in office and keep his agenda of peace going. That was his crime. He was a peacemaker and he wanted to make a world where there was a generation of peace. And he succeeded. That is his legacy. He was a peacemaker. He was a lying, conniving, covering up peacemaker. He was not a lying, conniving drug addict like JFK, a lying, conniving war starter like LBJ, a lying, conniving seducer like Clinton—a lying, conniving peacemaker.
Yet, Stein is shocked that a company (clearly unaware of his political activism) would not want him to be the spokesperson for their product. In his complaint below, he alleges such action is wrongful termination (third count). His fifth count is a claim of emotional distress over his being dumped “solely due to his political and religious beliefs.”
Here is the complaint.