It is less than 24 hours since the story broke but CNN contributor and former Democratic candidate for Florida governor, Andrew Gillum is already being referred to as a “former rising star of the Democratic party.” That is not a good sign. Gillum was found “inebriated” early Friday morning in a hotel where meth was also recovered. The story may rekindle a long controversy over “morals clauses” in media contracts.
There are various reports that the other man, Travis Dyson, 30, is an escort or may work in the porn industry but that has not been confirmed. A person with the same name and general description self-identifies as a male escort. All that is really known is that Dyson was hospitalized and both men were described by a witness of being found in the room vomiting. There is no clear criminality that I can see in this incident.
The incident raises an issue that we have discussed before about how such private conduct can result in severance by media corporations. Indeed, CNN faces such a controversy with the arrest of Richard Quest, who has continued with the company as a major contributor.
Gillum, 40, was in the room at the Mondrian Hotel in South Beach and police report that “Mr. Gillum was unable to communicate with officers due to his inebriated state.”
Gillum is married with three children and issued the following statement:
“I was in Miami last night for a wedding celebration when first responders were called to assist one of my friends. While I had too much to drink, I want to be clear that I have never used methamphetamines. I apologize to the people of Florida for the distraction this has caused our movement. I’m thankful to the incredible Miami Beach EMS team for their efforts. I will spend the next few weeks with my family and appreciate privacy during this time.”
Officers reported that they could see three small clear plastic baggies containing suspected crystal meth on both the bed and floor of the room. Such observations in “plain sight” allow the police to seize evidence without a warrant. However, mere possession of meth in the room is unlikely to result in criminal charges against Gillum, particularly because the ownership or use of the meth remains unclear.
Dyson is referenced in some articles as being treated for an overdose. He is a friend of Dr. Aldo Mejias, 56, who said that Dyson used his credit card for the room and he found both men vomiting. After Dyson collapsed, Mejias said that he performed chest compressions and other aid.
CNN’s reporting thus far is highly abridged and notably does not contain any additional information despite the fact that Gillum has been a contributor since 2019.
There is no question that Gillum would have been doubly benefitted from following the advice for “social distancing” in this case but the controversy again forces the issue of whether we can separate the private lives (and controversies) of celebrities from their work. In the media, such incidents can trigger clauses allowing for the termination of contracts for conduct that would bring embarrassment or discredit to the news organization. The standard “morals clause” is triggered by criminal conduct or conduct that brings “public disrepute, scandal, or embarrassment.” These clauses are written broadly to protect the news organizations and their “brand.” The very reference to these contractual provisions as “morals clauses” raises the question of their contemporary value. We are thankfully past the time when companies regularly confronted employees on their moral standing. Many of us do not feel comfortable judging the morals of others. More importantly, these clauses are often used as excuses to jettison anyone who threatens the “bottom line” of an organization.
Enforcement under these clauses can be dangerously subjective or ill-defined. Indeed, one commentator observed, what is embarrassing for one employees can be enhancing to another: “Different industries have diverse views on morality, which accounts for the discrepancies in morals clause enforcement. Although a newscaster’s reputation hinges upon his or her intellectual credibility, a rap artist’s depends only on his street credibility, or ‘street cred.'”
As private companies, media outfits are not subject to the type of free speech or association limits imposed on the government. As we discussed dozens of cases where companies have severed employees for notorious or embarrassing conduct from the bicyclist who flipped off Trump to drunks at sporting events to offensive social media postings. I have often been critical of such moves as inimical to free speech. I have previously written about concerns that public employees are increasingly being disciplined for actions in their private lives or views or associations outside of work. We have previously seen teachers (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), students (here, here and here) and other public employees (here and here and here) fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines (here), appearing on television shows in bikinis (here), or having a prior career in the adult entertainment industry (here). This includes Halloween costume controversies.
In the case of Gillum, he is not accused of any crime and, even if he was in the hotel for a tryst or drug use or both, would such a finding diminish his value as a political commentator? Gillum lost in a close race for government of Florida. Until this incident, he was viewed as one of the party’s most outstanding prospects for future elections. Quest is an example of someone who continued to contributed greatly to CNN after his arrest. Moreover, Gillum has proven consistently insightful and talented as a contributor on CNN in my view.
I have been generally critical of morals clauses and this incident highlights my concerns. However, I honestly cannot remember the last time that a media figure was severed under such a clause. Perhaps our readers in the media might be able to help in this regard. What was the last time that a media organization fired someone for such conduct? The more common approach is to keep someone on ice (and off the air) while seeing if they can weather the storm. Most of these contracts run year to year so that the organization can simply not renew if the on-air talent cannot recover. [For full disclosure, all of my past media contracts have contained such clauses, including my current contracts with CBS and BBC].
What do you think?