Are There Lessons About Sexual Harassment in the David
By JOANNA L. GROSSMAN
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
David Letterman rocked the late-night television scene on October 1, with a long and winding
on-air confession about a series of intra-office affairs. He revealed little in the way of detail,
except to acknowledge that he has "had sex with women who work for me on this show,"
behavior he described as "creepy." He followed up a few nights later with an apology to his wife,
whom he admitted to having "hurt terribly."
The confession was prompted by the indictment and arrest of Robert Joel Halderman, an Emmy-
winning CBS producer, for allegedly blackmailing and extorting Letterman. More specifically,
prosecutors say that Halderman asked for two million dollars in exchange for his promise not to
sell a screenplay based on Letterman's escapades. Media coverage of the scandal turned quickly
from Halderman's conduct to Letterman's. In particular, many asked, Did Letterman do anything
wrong – and, in particular, anything illegal -- by having sex with women in his office?
The term "sexual harassment" has been tossed around in the media during the course of the
controversy, including by Halderman's lawyer, who claims to have evidence of it. But, legally
speaking, did Letterman's conduct – based on what we know about it thus far -- constitute
unlawful sexual harassment?
In this column, I will lay out the basics of sexual harassment law, and then consider how these
principles might or might not apply to the Letterman situation.
The Basic Definition of Harassment: Quid Pro Quo or Hostile Work Environment
To begin, it's important to know the basics of how sexual harassment law arose, and the two
types of harassment the law recognizes as violating rights.
Title VII, a federal law governing employment discrimination, prohibits discrimination on the
basis of sex — which the Supreme Court has defined to include harassment that is serious
enough to affect the terms or conditions of employment. Sexual harassment takes one of two
forms: quid pro quo, or hostile environment. (Sexual harassment is also prohibited by state fair
employment laws, but they often mirror Title VII in scope.)