Ten days ago, the New York Times broke a story about five women to whom 21st Century Fox has paid out around $13 million to address allegations of abuse and sexual harassment at the hands of Fox News star, Bill O’Reilly. In addition to these five women who reached settlements, there have been at least two more who also allege sexual harassment on the part of O’Reilly.
According to the report, these women all either worked for O’Reilly or appeared on his show. They allege a variety of inappropriate behaviors ranging from lewd comments to unwanted advances, and all depict a predatory pattern of O’Reilly using his power and influence in an attempt to manipulate or extort these women for sex.
Despite these continuous allegations of sexual harassment, Bill O’Reilly has retained his show on the Fox News Network. Between 2014 and 2016, The O’Reilly Factor generated more than $446 million in advertising revenues.
In response to nationwide horror over the allegations against O’Reilly, over 70 companies have pulled their advertisements from his program. Still he remains on air, with ratings higher than before the scandal broke.
Last week, at the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, President Trump defended O’Reilly saying he was a “good person” and stated, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.” The President, who frequently endorses Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, was infamously embroiled in his own controversy after a 2005 tape was released in which he described grabbing women by the genitals without their consent. He dismissed criticisms surrounding that incident by referring to his comments as “locker room talk.”
O’Reilly claims that the allegations are without merit while 21st Century Fox insists that they have “addressed the issue.” Two of the sexual harassment suits reported in the Times were settled after the departure of disgraced former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, an accused serial abuser who was sent away with a $40 million severance package. President Trump also defended Roger Ailes while that controversy was unfolding.
As the public learned from former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson in 2016, many of Fox’s contracts contain arbitration clauses, fine print that forfeits an employee’s right to have a legal dispute with their company settled in court, instead forcing them into private proceedings. The proceedings are overseen by an arbiter or a judge but lack a public trial by jury and typically result in significantly lower settlements for the plaintiff. Arbitration clauses have been criticized as ways for major corporations to suppress their employee’s options for legal recourse and keep sexual harassment allegations secret.
The Supreme Court has ruled that sexual harassment constitutes a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII, Bill O’Reilly cannot be personally held liable for federal sex discrimination, though he could be open to criminal prosecution should he commit a crime such as assault or rape. In the case of Gretchen Carlson, she sued Roger Ailes under a state’s anti-discrimination laws. Typically, it is the employer who is sued in these federal cases where the plaintiff must prove that the company is liable for the harassers behavior.
Legal experts say O’Reilly has put 21st Century Fox in a difficult position moving forward, as it will be very difficult for the company to argue they have done everything possible to create a non-hostile work environment for women.
25 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment in the work place, and false reports are exceptionally rare. Only 15 percent of federal discrimination complaints end in a successful finding for the plaintiff, a lower win rate than all other forms of civil lawsuits.
Media Resources: New York Times 4/1/17, 4/5/17; Think Progress 4/10/17; Vox 4/11/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 10/26/16.
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