We know the FCC decides what's offensive on TV and radio in America, but what about Twitter?
Long after he's forgotten for playing in the National Football League, Rashard Mendenhall just might earn the distinction of being the person who saved celebrities' right to say inappropriate things on social media.
Mendenhall, running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers, lost a million-dollar endorsement deal after his controversial Twitter comments following the death of Osama bin Laden.
"What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side," Mendenhall said shortly after the terrorist who is believed to have been behind the 9/11 attacks was killed by U.S. Navy Seals last May.
Less than 48 hours after that tweet, Hansebrands canceled its big money contract with Mendenhall to endorse Champion sportswear. He quickly filed a federal lawsuit to get the almighty dollars.
The Steelers star has over 86,000 followers on his R_Mendenhall account, despite not sending tweets since July 13, 2011.
In addition to the Osama bin Laden tweets, Mendenhall also said he supported Vikings star Adrian Peterson's comparison between the NFL and "modern-day slavery." ESPN.com reported that Mendanhall said "anyone with knowledge of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel each other."
Mendenhall feels these current legal proceedings will decide whether an athlete, or celebrity in general, employed as a product endorser no longer has the right to express their own opinions because the corporation whose products he or she endorses might not agree with those opinions.
Hansebrands used the U.S. trademark law in its opposition to the lawsuit. The law basically says the company can fire anyone for such offensive comments because of the "considerable time and resources" it has invested "building up substantial goodwill associated with its famous brand."
The Hollywood Reporter notes that a North Carolina federal judge has ruled against Hanesbrands, meaning it can't get out of the lawsuit. The judge said Mendenhall alleged a plausible claim for breach of contract.
In non-legal words, he's got a legitimate case to fight for the legal tender.
Keep in mind that Mendenhall reportedly signed what's been described as a "pretty standard" morals clause. That blocked him from doing things that would put him "into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult or offend a majority of the consuming public."
Judge James Beaty ruled that Hanesbrands couldn't get out of its endorsement deal over the Twitter messages alone. The Hollywood Reporter says the judge made it clear that Mendenhall must have been involved in an act that brought him "into public dispute …" and the fact that the company objected to his comments is not enough to get out of the endorsement deal.
Despite most of the reaction being negative, the judge focused on a few positive tweets over Mendenhall's bin Laden comments in his ruling.
It's far from over, but so far Mendenhall has the legal lead in a lawsuit that the Hollywood Reporter and other believe could set precedent over just what's really offensive on Twitter.
-- Follow Ben Maller on Twitter @BenMaller.
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