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Clippers Controversy: Legal to Record Donald Sterling's Comments?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in hot water over alleged racist remarks made to girlfriend V. Stiviano about being seen with black people. But was it legal for Sterling's comments to have been recorded in the first place?

A man TMZ has identified as Sterling was caught in an audio recording making racist demands of Stiviano, after the woman posted a picture of herself on Instagram with basketball legend Magic Johnson.

Though many want Sterling to suffer consequences for his alleged remarks, whoever made the recording could potentially also get in trouble -- for breaking California's eavesdropping laws.

Foul Conversation Recorded

The recording obtained by TMZ has a number of upsetting statements allegedly attributed to Sterling, and has caused an uproar in and out of the NBA. You can hear the recording in this clip:

When allegations like this come to light, the NBA often launches its own investigation, to protect its financial and legal interests. As Sports Illustrated notes, one of its first steps will be authenticating the recording and identifying the man's voice as Sterling's.

This would require the NBA asking TMZ to turn over the original recording, which may have been obtained with the understanding that it would not be shared.


One possible legal twist in the controversy: The person who recorded Sterling, whether it was Stiviano or an unknown third party, could potentially be liable for criminal charges under California's eavesdropping laws. In California, if you intentionally record a private conversation without the consent of all parties, whether on the phone or in person, you could be guilty of a misdemeanor.

This law only applies if the parties were having a truly "private" conversation. For example, speaking quietly to each other at a public event -- like a Clippers game -- wouldn't be a private conversation. It also wouldn't be a crime to have accidentally recorded Sterling without his knowledge.

Criminal liability may be another reason for TMZ not to release the details of the original recording, as it might mean an arrest for whoever secretly caught Sterling on tape.

NBA Response

The NBA will likely continue to investigate the racist allegations against Sterling and possibly fine and/or suspend him. According to the LA Times, the Clippers stated Saturday that the team is unsure of who is on the recording, but that its sentiments do not "reflect Sterling's 'views, beliefs, or feelings.'"

NBA spokesman Mike Bass noted that the remarks on the recording were "disturbing and offensive" but had no further information. SI reports that Sterling will be required to cooperate in any NBA investigations under the owner's franchise agreement.

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