Was Recording Sterling’s Racist Rant Legal?

News, Rights

After the famous tape of Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks was leaked to the media, Sterling has been fined $2.5 million, is banned for life from the NBA, and will likely be forced to sell the team. Sterling’s legal team is fighting back — but does he have a case?

The Legalities of the Sterling Tape

Sterling has confirmed it is indeed his own voice in the leaked audio — recorded on a cell phone by his girlfriend — where he expressed racist views. But really, the first issue to be addressed is whether the tapes should be discussed at all, since they may have been made illegally.

Most states require only one person to be aware that a conversation is being recorded. California, however,  is a “two-party” state, where it is completely illegal to record someone without his or her knowledge. Sterling’s girlfriend now says Sterling wanted her to record him because he frequently forgot what he said and the tapes refreshed his memory. If, then, the tapes were obtained legally, no laws were violated by leaking them to TMZ.

According to the NBA’s constitution, an owner may be terminated if the person fails or refuses, “to fulfill its contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any other third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely.” Additionally, moral and ethical contracts Sterling has signed with the league over the years will also help back up the basis for banning the owner of the Clippers. The language in those contracts reportedly prevents Sterling from expressing views or taking actions that are detrimental to the league.

So Much for Privacy

What Sterling said was not obviously illegal, but the NBA — being a private club — can punish Sterling as it sees fit. The takeaway here? In an increasingly un-private world, we really can’t say anything in private to friends that we wouldn’t want heard in public.