CareerBae: Surviving the Morality Clause in Entertainment Contracts!

Awards season is officially upon us and in the middle of it another scandal has arisen.  Kevin Hart who was tapped to be the 2019 Oscar Host has decided to not host the show after the Oscars gave him a ultimatum to either apologize for his 9 year old LGBT offensive jokes or he could not host the show.  As a comedian, most would argue that its their job to be a equal opportunity offender and what is being is said is in jest so why would the Oscars be so sensitive to Kevin's past remarks.  The answer is the "morality clause".

A "morality clause" or what is better known as the “morals clause” is a provision in a contract which stipulates that certain actions or activities done in an individual’s “private life” can be grounds for termination of the contract.  For entertainment lawyers, these sorts of clauses most often arise in TV actor or host contracts (where a producer, broadcaster or studio may want to end their association with an individual whose reputation has become toxic) and in celebrity endorsement contracts (where a manufacturer of a product or service provider no longer wants their product or service associated with an individual who has gained public infamy).

In addition to the Kevin Hart Oscar scandal, morals clauses have been relevant to a few different high-profile celebrity stories in the last few years: when Kevin Spacey was fired from the last season of House of Cards for his alleged sexual misconduct with a minor and his production staff, Matt Lauer who was fired from NBC for his sexual misconduct in the work place  and even in NFL contracts where Buffalo Bills star LeSean McCoy was accused of hiring an assault and home invasion of his ex girlfriend Delicia Cordon.

As an example, here is what might be considered the most basic form of morals clause (some of these clauses are taken from Eric Goldman’s drafting exercise):

Performer shall not, either while rendering such services to the producer or in his private life, be charged with or convicted of an offense [involving moral turpitude] under federal, state or local laws or ordinances.

Here's another example:

If at any time while Artist is rendering or obligated to render on-camera services for the program hereunder, Artist is involved in any situation or occurrence which subjects Artist to public scandal, disrepute, widespread contempt, public ridicule, [or which is widely deemed by members of the general public, to embarrass, offend, insult or denigrate individuals or groups,] or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community or public morals or decency or prejudice the Producer in general, then Producer shall have the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action it deems appropriate, including but not limited to terminating the production of the program.

This above clause is considered more of a “expansive” morals clause because it covers situations where the performer has made a comment (or participated in an activity) which is deemed by community standards to be insulting to an individual or group.  In that latter category one could imagine situations where a performer makes comments which reflect on negative stereotypes of an ethnic, religious or racial or sexual orientation group such as in the Kevin Hart Oscar incident.

These sorts of “expansive” morals clauses become a bit more difficult to police or enforce since they become more subjective and open to interpretation, since it is not as straight forward like under the “basic morals" clause (i.e., was the person charged or convicted of a crime or not?), but a subjective assessment of whether a particular incident is “bad” enough that it triggers the termination right in the contract.

So the "moral of the story" (pun intended lol) is you or your clients have to be just as careful in your personal life or it will come to light and affect your professional one.

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