A female shipyard welder who accused her employer of sexual harassment has won a ground-breaking ruling that posting pictures of nude and partly nude women is a form of sexual harassment.
While rulings in other cases have found that pornographic pictures may contribute to an atmosphere of sexual harassment, the new decision is thought to be the first finding that such pictures are, in and of themselves, harassment.
The judge, Howell Melton of U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla., found last Friday that Jacksonville Shipyards Inc. and two of its employees were directly liable for the harassment. He rejected what he called the company's "ostrich defense" that it was unaware of many of the complaints made by the plaintiff, Lois Robinson.
Judge Melton said the shipyard, where Ms. Robinson has worked since 1977, maintained a boys' club atmosphere with an unrelenting "visual assault on the sensibilities of female workers," including pinup calendars and close-ups of women's genitals posted on the walls. He said the sexualized atmosphere of the workplace had worked to keep women out of the shipyard.
"A pre-existing atmosphere that deters women from entering or continuing in a profession or job is no less destructive to and offensive to workplace equality than a sign declaring 'men only,' " he wrote.
Judge Melton ordered the shipyard to institute a comprehensive sexual harassment policy written by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York-based women's advocacy group that brought the case.
Eric Holshouser, a lawyer for the shipyard, said the company had no comment. But at the trial, the company said it had not known of all Ms. Robinson's complaints and presented expert witnesses to testify that the pictures would not create substantial harm or offense to the average woman.
In addition, the company said that since 1980 it had had a policy prohibiting abuse of dignity through sexist slurs. But the court found that the policy was ineffective and that many employees were unaware of it.
The courts have previously ruled that sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of illegal sex discrimination.
The Florida decision, which found both verbal and visual sexual harassment, describes 30 pornographic pictures displayed at the shipyard, including a picture of a woman's pubic area with a spatula pressed on it.
Ms. Robinson repeatedly complained to her supervisors about the pictures, according to the testimony. At one meeting where she made a formal complaint, the opinion said, a supervisor told her that the company had no policy against the pictures and that the men had "constitutional rights" to post the pictures.