Watch CBS News

Play "explicit" music at work? That could amount to harassment, court rules

Loud music in public settings can spark social disputes. But blasting tunes that are "sexually explicit" or "aggressive" in the workplace can also be grounds for claiming sexual harassment, according to a recent court ruling.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said this week that the owners of a warehouse that let workers blast "sexually graphic, violently misogynistic" music may have permitted harassment to occur on its premises. As a result, an employee lawsuit against the company will be allowed to proceed. The complaint, initially filed in 2020, comes from seven women and one man who worked for S&S Activewear, a wholesale apparel company headquartered in Bolingbrook, Illinois.  

According to court filings, some employees and managers in S&S' Reno, Nevada, warehouse allegedly blasted rap music that contained offensive language denigrating women. Other workers objected to the songs, which were streamed from "commercial-strength speakers placed throughout the warehouse" and sometimes put on forklifts and driven around, making them unavoidable, according to the suit. 

"[T]he music overpowered operational background noise and was nearly impossible to escape," according to the court filings. 

"Graphic gestures"

It wasn't just the music that caused offense. The songs, some of which referred to women as "bitches" and "hos" and glorified prostitution, allegedly encouraged abusive behavior by male employees. Some workers "frequently pantomimed sexually graphic gestures, yelled obscenities, made sexually explicit remarks, and openly shared pornographic videos," according to court filings.

Despite frequent complaints from offended workers, S&S allowed employees to keep playing the tunes because managers felt it motivated people to work harder, according to the decision.

The lower court dismissed the employees' lawsuit, saying that because both men and women were offended by the music, "no individual or group was subjected to harassment because of their sex or gender," according to court filings. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal. 

"First, harassment, whether aural or visual, need not be directly targeted at a particular plaintiff in order to pollute a workplace," the court said, adding that the "conduct's offensiveness to multiple genders" does not automatically bar a case of sex discrimination.

S&S Activewear did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CBS MoneyWatch. 

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed an amicus brief encouraging the lawsuit to proceed. On its website, the EEOC notes that creating "a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile or offensive to reasonable people" can constitute harassment. 

"The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct," it said.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.