The lewd language of a Fox News Channel executive -- however tasteless -- does not constitute sexual harassment or discrimination, a lawyer for the network said Tuesday.
The lawyer was responding to a discrimination suit against the network filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and targeting the head of the company’s promotion department.
The complaint contains a list of statements alleged to have been made by network vice president Joe Chillemi to employees in the 20-person department, roughly one-half of whom are women.
Offensive remarks attributed to Chillemi include saying that a pregnant woman had "tits" like "cannons"
Steven Mintz, a Manhattan lawyer hired by Fox, called the complaint "legally baseless", saying: "We don’t view any of the assertions in the action as either harassment or discrimination. This is a case involving bad language."
Mintz disputes some of the alleged statements, but would only address one of them.
The EEOC says that Chillemi used the phrase "as useless as tits on a bull" in front of women. Mintz said that’s not the precise language. The phrase is "as useless as teats on a bull. "It’s something that’s useless. It’s not a sexual comment."
Asked whether Chillemi actually used that word, Mintz replied: "I believe that he said "teats" exactly that way. It’s something he used to say in front of men and women."
But Mintz also acknowledges that some of the language was correctly reported.
Still, while Fox does not encourage bad words in the workplace, Mintz acknowledges that it happens, "probably even at the EEOC."
The suit, filed Monday, charges that Chillemi routinely swore and made ribald remarks and comments that a freelancer in the promotion department found offensive.
The EEOC complaint was filed on behalf of Kim Weiler, a former freelance production assistant in the promotion department and other unnamed women she worked with.
The suit is based on allegations that during Weiler’s 13 months at the network, Chillemi regularly used obscenities and vulgarities and that the network retaliated against Weiler when she objected.
EEOC trial attorney Judy Keenan says that Weiler was not fired outright, but was “constructively terminated” by the hostility toward her after she complained.
"The general tenor of the case is that women were treated differently than men, and the predominant form was harassment," Keenan says. Adding that "We want to send a message that you can’t do this without consequences."
Mintz counters that there was no retaliation. The project Weiler was working on ended and she was offered another slot in the company’s viewer services department.
Further, Mintz contends that Weiler didn’t complain to anyone at the network, which has systems in place to encourage even anonymous reports of harassment problems.
Rather than "following company procedures of notification," Mintz says, "she opted to file a lawsuit instead. Which might be easier than going to work each day." Keenan contends Weiler did complain to human resources.
The suit seeks compensatory damages for any financial losses and emotional distress suffered by Weiler and her colleagues, plus punitive damages.
According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York:
--Chillemi routinely used gross obscenities and vulgarities when describing women or their body parts (referring, for example, to women’s breasts as “tits” and declaring that something was “as useless as tits on a bull”).
--He routinely used obscenities and vulgarities with women employees that he did not use with male employees (such as telling women that they had put his “d--k” “on the chopping block”).
--Chillemi routinely cursed at and otherwise denigrated women employees and treated them in a demeaning way (including telling women not to be a “p--sy” but to “be a man”, and referring to women as being a “bitch”).
--He made a number of derogatory comments about pregnant women (such as regularly stating that a pregnant woman had “tits” that were “f---ing huge” and like “cannons” or “melons” and the on-air talent’s breasts needed to be “covered” or not shown when the pregnant woman was being filmed).
--In addition, at a department discussion about a segment on sexism in the workplace, Chillemi said that in choosing who to hire “if it came down between a man or a woman, of course I’d pick the man. The woman would most likely get pregnant and leave.”
--Women in the Fox Advertising and Promotions departments supervised by Chillemi were also referred to in a derogatory way by a supervisor as his “Promo Girls.”
The suit more broadly charges that Fox has discriminated against Weiler and an other female promotions employees by assigning women primarily to freelance positions with less benefits, less advancement potential and less job security and not appropriately assigning women to full staff positions.
Allegations of sexual and age discrimination is a persistent problem in the TV news business, particularly involving on-air talent where looks are pivotal to a woman’s success. In a recent B&C cover story on discrimination, lawyers said that actual complaints and lawsuits are declining in part because retaliation against a woman can be harsh and they can be blackballed by other networks and stations.
A copy of the Fox complaint can be found here: