A federal appeals court has issued a first-of-its-kind ruling that says blasting music with “sexually graphic” and “violently misogynistic” lyrics in a workplace could violate federal discrimination laws.
Reviving a lawsuit against an apparel company that played songs like Too $hort‘s “Blowjob Betty” and Eminem‘s “Stan” at a Nevada warehouse, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday (June 9) that the music had potentially created a “hostile or abusive environment” for female employees.
“Blasted from commercial-strength speakers placed throughout the warehouse, the music overpowered operational background noise and was nearly impossible to escape,” the appeals court wrote. “In turn, the music allegedly served as a catalyst for abusive conduct by male employees, who frequently pantomimed sexually graphic gestures, yelled obscenities, made sexually explicit remarks, and openly shared pornographic videos.”
The employer, S&S Activewear, argued the music didn’t constitute illegal bias under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, partly because it had been equally offensive to both men and women. And last year, a federal trial judge agreed, calling the case “fatally flawed” and dismissing it on those grounds.
But in Wednesday’s decision, the Ninth Circuit called that an “absurd interpretation” of the statute — and one that would create a “gaping hole” in discrimination law for any company that chose to be an “equal opportunity harasser.”
The appeals court said it was the first time it had ever ruled on the issue of “music-as-harassment” under the Civil Rights Act. But the judges said that sexist songs should be treated no differently than other situations where a workplace is “polluted with insult and intimidation.”
“[Female employees were] forced to tolerate the music and the toxic environment as a condition of continued employment,” the court wrote. “Whether sung, shouted, or whispered, blasted over speakers or relayed face-to-face, sexist epithets can offend and may transform a workplace into a hostile environment that violates Title VII.”
Importantly, Wednesday’s ruling does not say that S&S definitely violated the law; rather, it says the allegations against the company could have merit if they are eventually proven, and thus that the case should not have been dismissed so quickly. The case will now return to a lower court for more litigation and an eventual trial.
An attorney for S&S did not immediately return a request for comment on the decision.
The case was filed in 2020 by Stephanie Sharp and seven other women who worked at S&S’s Nevada warehouse. As examples of the music they were allegedly forced to listen to, they cited “Blowjob Betty,” including its lyrics about a woman “who dies because of swallowing semen in her windpipe.” They also cited “Stan” and its lyrics about “placing a pregnant woman in the trunk of a vehicle and then driving the vehicle into a river … for the purpose of drowning her.”
Though the songs at issue in the case were mostly hip-hop, Wednesday’s ruling reviving that lawsuit was careful to stress that it was not targeting rap music specifically.
“It is beyond our purview to pass judgment on the appropriateness of music in the workplace writ large,” the court wrote. “Nor is it our objective to ascribe misogyny to any particular musical genre.”
Read the Ninth Circuit’s entire ruling here:
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