Last week some writers at Jezebel made a public complaint about its parent, Gawker Media:
For months, an individual or individuals has been using anonymous, untraceable burner accounts to post gifs of violent pornography in the discussion section of stories on Jezebel. The images arrive in a barrage, and the only way to get rid of them from the website is if a staffer individually dismisses the comments and manually bans the commenter. But because IP addresses aren't recorded on burner accounts, literally nothing is stopping this individual or individuals from immediately signing up for another, and posting another wave of violent images (and then bragging about it on 4chan in conversations staffers here have followed, which we're not linking to here because fuck that garbage). This weekend, the user or users have escalated to gory images of bloody injuries emblazoned with the Jezebel logo. It's like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra.
The writers further complained that they had repeatedly informed Gawker Media of the problem, but higher-ups failed or refused to do anything about it. A couple of days later, the writers announced that Gawker Media had responded and was taking steps to deal with trolls barraging them with rape porn.
This complaint was ridiculed in some circles. No, I won't link them. The ridicule seemed to be based on the propositions that (1) it's silly to think that Gawker should be responsible for what some third-party troll is doing to its employees, and (2) it's silly to be upset by that sort of thing.
This is a good example of the phenomenon I like to call "bless your heart for thinking that, but it's not the law, dipshit."
American employers are, in fact, responsible for taking reasonable steps to protect their employees from racial or sexual harassment by third parties. This is the example I use when I train companies on sexual harassment prevention: if the UPS guy is constantly and creepily hitting on your receptionist, you need to do something about it. You may think that it is outrageous that this is the rule. Cool story, bro. That's what the law is, and if you employ people or advise anyone who employs people, you're a fool to ignore it. Here's how the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit — hardly a bastion of liberalism — recently summarized it:
Similar to the reasoning we set forth for employer liability for co-worker harassment, “an employer cannot avoid Title VII liability for [third-party] harassment by adopting a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ strategy.' “ Ocheltree v. Scollon Prods., Inc., 335 F.3d 325, 334 (4th Cir.2003) (en banc). Therefore, an employer is liable under Title VII for third parties creating a hostile work environment if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed “to take prompt remedial action reasonably calculated to end the harassment.” Amirmokri v. Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co., 60 F.3d 1126, 1131 (4th Cir.1995) (quoting Katz v. Dole, 709 F.2d 251, 256 (4th Cir.1983)) (internal quotation marks omitted) (applying this standard to co-worker harassment).
In that case, the Circuit overturned a trial court judgment for the employer, finding that there was sufficient evidence to go to trial on the employee's complaints that an asshole customer had created a hostile environment and the employer didn't do anything about it:
Applying this standard here, we conclude that a reasonable jury could find that Dal–Tile knew or should have known of the harassment. Here, Freeman presented evidence that Wrenn, her supervisor, knew of all three of the most major incidents: the two “black b* * * * ” comments, and the “f* * *ed up as a n* * * *r's checkbook” comment. Wrenn was present for the first “black b* * * * ” comment, which Freeman complained about to Wrenn afterward. Freeman also complained to Wrenn specifically about the other two comments from Koester almost immediately after they occurred.5 When Freeman complained to Wrenn about the “f* * *ed up as a n* * * *r's checkbook” comment, Wrenn “scoffed and shook her head and put her head back down and continued on with trying to pick the nail polish off of her nails.” J.A. 102. When Freeman complained about the second “black b* * * * ” comment, Wrenn simply rolled her eyes and went on talking to a co-worker. J.A. 112. In addition to these most severe incidents, Wrenn was also present the time Koester passed gas on Freeman's phone and Freeman began crying and had to leave the room.
That supervisor, Wrenn, reacted rather like the critics of the Jezebel writers: "why, exactly, is this an issue we should care about?" That attitude was rather expensive for the defendant company in this case.
Or maybe you think that trolls constantly posting rape porn isn't severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile working environment. No, thanks, I don't think I'll borrow your laptop. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but everyone isn't entitled to the law being what they think it is. Minimal exposure to pornography isn't severe or pervasive. If someone puts up a centerfold and you complain and it's gone the next day, courts wont' find that to be sufficient to create liability. But being constantly exposed to pornography calculated to upset you — meant to troll you? That's probably over the line. "Although most cases involving pornography in the workplace include other elements such as threatening or offensive remarks, see, e.g., Waltman, 875 F.2d at 471, there is no necessary reason why the presence of pornography alone could not create a hostile work environment so long as the pornography was sufficiently severe or pervasive." Adams v. City of Gretna, 2009 WL 1668374 (E.D. La. June 12, 2009).
Let's put it this way: Gawker Media made the wrong choice when they ignored complaints, and the right choice when they started taking steps reasonably calculated to address the complaints. I'm not certain that the writers would win a lawsuit if Gawker had continued to put its head in the sand, but if I had to choose the stronger case, I'd choose the writers.
Preventing harassment is, for whatever reason, a subject that upsets people. Go ahead, be upset. Say it's ridiculous! But part of my job is training companies to minimize liability risks, and I'm here to tell you: if you don't take it very seriously as an employer, you might as well start writing checks to litigators right now.
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