Hostile Workplace Lawsuits in the Age of Networked Computers
In the workplace, electronic pornography is legal poison. A singular lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department demonstrates the value of technical measures to filter, screen or block porn (including lewd spam).
In a hostile workplace lawsuit against an employer (whether private sector or government), the existence of porn on work computers or in work e-mail systems can be highly prejudicial. Even though the employer objected to porn and enforced an explicit policy against it, its presence can reflect horribly on the employer as a case goes to a public courtroom.
In Williams v. City of Chicago (US Dist Ct, N.D. Illinois, E Div 03C2994, Jul 13, 2004), e-pornography backed the police department into an indefensible position. Officer Williams had complained more than once about a sexually offensive work environment, including both foul comments by co-workers and nasty images on computers (e-mail and otherwise).
The department had a formal policy against such behavior, and Ms. Williams' supervisors endeavored to uphold that policy.
In pursuit of the policy, supervisors had promptly investigated and responded to her complaints, including removal of pornography. The city argued that on account of its good policy it should be entitled to "summary judgment" in the case. Under summary judgment, the city would win the case before it went to the jury.
However, the court ruled there was insufficient evidence to award summary judgment to the city. In other words, the court said the case should go to a jury for decision. According to the court: "If the jury determines that pornography was so prevalent that the City should have known about it, the jury could conclude that the City was negligent in discovering the harassment. Similarly, if the jury determines that the City knew about the pornography because others had complained about it, the jury could conclude that the City was negligent in remedying the harassment."
Wow. How can the police department (or a sherrif's office) withstand a jury trial focused on the amount of pornography on the department's computers? Such a public trial would be highly embarrassing, even if the department eventually won the case! The local media would have a field day. At this point, the city has strong incentive to settle – at considerable expense – with Ms. Williams. (I can't tell from the court's opinion whether the city did settle with Mr. Williams, but I'll bet it did.)
Behold the city's unenviable position. Even after it settles, its problem remains. The continued presence of Internet pornography can prejudice the city in future cases brought by future employee-plaintiffs, just as it did in Ms. Williams' case. A case could rise directly from sexual harassment allegations, or from allegations of retaliation following a complaint about porn.
I therefore argue an employer like this police department has good reason to seek technical measures to mitigate its problem. Although technical filters and blocks are imperfect, they can materially reduce the quantity of pornography in workplace e-mail and systems.
Mr. Wright teaches Internet Records and Security Law for the SANS Institute, where he covers topics like investigations into cybertheft and HR allegations.