Playing Radio Show That Discussed Sex = Possible Massive Legal Liability?

Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc, decided Monday by the Eleventh Circuit, is the latest case illustrating how hostile environment harassment law may suppress constitutionally protected speech. The Eleventh Circuit held that Ingrid Reeves could proceed to trial with her hostile environment harassment claim -- which is to say, that if the jury agrees with her on the facts, it's entitled to award potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages -- even though the case didn't involve any sexual extortion, any offensive touching, any sexual propositions, or even any insults targeted to her personally.

Rather, her complaints, as described by the Eleventh Circuit were chiefly related to "sexually crude language that offended her." A fairly small part of the incidents involved sex-based insults ("bitch," "whore," and once "cunt") used to refer to women customers and another employee behind their backs. There was also casual use of the word "dick," and some sexually themed jokes (and one song) with pretty vulgar language, overheard discussions about pornography, masturbation, and sex; one incident in which Reeves saw pornography on a coworker's computer; and the following:

Reeves was also offended by a radio program that was played every morning on the stereo in the office [a morning program on Birmingham's 107.7 FM during 2002-03, according to one brief -EV]. Discussions of the following material on the show offended her: (1) breast size of female celebrities and Playboy Playmates; (2) sexual arousal and women’s nipples as indications thereof; (3) masturbation, both in general and with animals; (4) erotic dreams; (5) ejaculation; and (6) female pornography. Advertisements for or including the following material that were aired during the program also offended her: (1) sexual favors; (2) a bikini contest that instructed women to wear their most perverse bikinis; (3) a statement that a woman was found in bed with three elves and a candy cane; and (4) a drug called Proton that promised to increase sexual performance, please a partner, and make the user a “sexual tyrannosaurus rex.” When Reeves complained about the radio programming, she was often told that she could play her own music or change the station. She testified, however, that if she did so the other employees would soon change the radio back to the offensive program.

The Eleventh Circuit expressly rejected the argument that, to constitute discriminatory harassment "based on" sex, speech had to actually specifically target the plaintiff as a woman (or, in other contexts, as a black, Catholic, or whatever else). There's a good deal of circuit precedent for this rejection -- but the consequence is that any speech, including radio programs, overheard conversations, and the like, that is "particularly offensive" to people because of their sex, race, religion, and so on is punishable. The sexually themed material, the court concluded, "was discussed in a manner that was ... more degrading to women than men," which I take it reflects the view in plaintiff's brief that "In these discussions, women were objectified and demeaned." And because it implicitly expressed such degrading views, it could be punishable as harassing based on sex.

As a matter of good manners, and sound business management, I gladly condemn people who expose unwilling colleagues to such speech. The employer -- a private entity that's not bound by the First Amendment -- was free to restrict the speech, just as private Internet service providers, schools, churches, malls, and householders are generally free to restrict speech on their private property (setting aside a few contrary state laws that are not relevant here).

But here the government is saying that this speech is legally actionable, because it supposedly reflects a "degrading" perspective on women. The speech does not fit within any First Amendment exception -- there is no such exception for vulgarity, including relatively nonpolitical vulgarity (understandable, given the impossibility of defining the boundaries of such an exception). The government ought not be able to limit it, including through threat of massive civil penalties, whether the penalties are imposed on the speaker or on property owners that tolerate the speech. Yet this is exactly what happens here.

What's more, the logic of the case (which expressly draws on racial harassment caselaw and not just sexual harassment caselaw) extends far beyond talk of sex. The reasoning would apply even more forcefully to sexist political statements, sexist criticisms of politicians, racist political statements, racist criticisms of politicians, radio shows that condemn Islam and Muslims, radio shows that condemn atheism, and the like. And harassment law has indeed been used in the past to impose liability based on such political, religious, and social commentary, see here and, most recently, here (anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and on occasion anti-Arab political statements).

On top of that, while harassment claims are generally not easy for plaintiffs to win, they have a perfectly predictable deterrent effect on employers, who don't want to risk losing them (or even litigating them). If you're an employer, you hear about this case, and then someone complains about allegedly sexually themed, religiously offensive, sexist, or racist radio programs being played, or overheard lunchtime conversations, what would you do?

I'm pretty sure that if you're rationally worried about litigation, you'd order that the radio playing and the conversations stop, for fear of government-imposed liability, and not just out of good manners or a desire to promote morale. I generally don't fault employers for reacting this way. But I do fault the legal system for imposing this sort of content-based, viewpoint-based deterrent to speech.

Of course, many people are understandably upset about having to work around this sort of vulgarity, or for that matter around political speech that they find offensive based on religion, race, sex, and the like. But, as I've argued at length, preventing such offense -- whether in private workplaces, private educational institutions, privately owned places of public accommodation, or private housing complexes -- by punishing or imposing liability for speech (outside the narrow existing First Amendment exceptions) is not something that the government should be allowed to do.

I should also mention that the special First Amendment status of broadcast radio, under which some restrictions on vulgarities and even on content that simply discusses certain sexual themes have been upheld, is not relevant here -- the case didn't turn on this, and would have come out the same way if it had involved cable radio, or Internet radio, or CDs, or any other fully protected medium. (I think the lower protection for broadcast radio is itself unsound, but that's a separate matter.) I should also mention that the defendant didn't raise the First Amendment here, and the court therefore didn't discuss it.

Thanks to Michael Masinter for the pointer.