Tavis Smiley’s Upcoming Trial Against PBS Will Raise Important Questions About Consent and Workplace Relationships

Illustration for article titled Tavis Smiley’s Upcoming Trial Against PBS Will Raise Important Questions About Consent and Workplace Relationships
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For years, Tavis Smiley, the former PBS late-night talk show host, has been defiant in the face of sexual misconduct allegations.


Smiley has been entangled in a legal battle with his former employer, PBS, since 2018, over accusations that he sexually harassed, intimidated, and verbally abused employees, as well as having more than a decade’s worth of sexual relationships with subordinates and guests on his show. Smiley was fired after an investigation was launched into the “multiple, credible” allegations, but promptly filed a lawsuit against PBS in response, alleging breach of contract.

The ensuing trial, which starts Monday of next week, can shape how we talk about workplace relationships, consent, and how power dynamics shape both.

On Tuesday, Smiley posted that he was looking forward to his day in court with a long missive on Facebook titled, “Why I am going to trial against PBS.” In it, Smiley railed against the “false allegations.”

“Our reputations are the most valuable things we own, and [PBS] have attempted to trash mine beyond redemption,” Smiley wrote. He also urged people to “look beyond the facts”:

When PBS leaked to Variety on December 13, 2017, that they had “multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct” against me, I immediately and profusely denied the scurrilous allegations. I did acknowledge, however, that over the course of my thirty-year broadcast career, I had consensually dated persons with whom I had worked. For some, my truth might represent professional misjudgment, albeit decades ago. But, does it justify this kind of public character shredding? Today it’s me, tomorrow it could be you, your son, your husband, your brother. Indeed, according to research, sixty percent of Americans have dated a workplace colleague. The data also reveal that on the list of the top five places people meet where the relationship led to marriage, “at work” was number one.

Smiley also drew comparisons to himself and Paul Robeson, the actor, singer, and civil rights activist who was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s for his political beliefs. Just like Robeson and other notable public figures, Smiley says a “morality clause” in his PBS contract was wielded against him.

Morality clauses are standard in contracts with on-air talent and, in recent years, have been used as a way to terminate contracts with personalities publicly accused of sexual misconduct and abuse.


The post echoed statements Smiley made earlier this year in response to detailed allegations about his sexual misconduct which were documented in an unsealed report from a PBS-hired internal investigator.

Among the more serious allegations was that Smiley fired women from his show to prevent fallout from his affairs, or to keep word of his affairs from spreading.


The report was unsealed in January due to the ongoing legal battle over Smiley’s dismissal from the channel, which ended its relationship with the prominent TV host back in 2018 after “multiple, credible” allegations of misconduct surfaced. Smiley sued PBS, saying in his complaint that the company was aware of his office relationships and could have chosen not to renew his 2017 contract if it was concerned about his behavior. The former talk-show host has maintained that his affairs were consensual and decades-old. He’s also denied that he has sexually harassed or fired women because of these affairs.


This is at odds with multiple reports from different women—some guests of his show, some who were his employees—who accused Smiley of unwanted attention or touching, and of weaponizing what were ostensibly consensual relationships against them.

Importantly, these women said they felt they had no recourse for addressing his behavior, saying such efforts would be “futile” since Smiley oversaw both the organization and the human resources department, reports NBC.


This is what makes Smiley’s reference to workplace dating more than a little disingenuous: It completely elides the power dynamics that are central to the women’s claims. Dating a peer or someone in a neighboring department is substantially different than a junior worker dating someone in the C-suite, and the fallouts from such relationships are rarely distributed equally.

It’s difficult to see how Smiley, a very smart man who has prided himself on his critical political and social stances, would not understand or even allude to this, especially since it appears some of the women he had sexual relationships with said they made this clear to him.


From Variety:

One woman, who had been a guest on Smiley’s show in 2008 or 2009 and had a sexual relationship with Smiley, noted that she “uncomfortably went with [sexual contact]” at Smiley’s house and added that “women are put in a bad position when their boss hits on them,” according to the report’s summary of interviews. She said she was not invited back to the show.

A former traveling producer for Smiley told investigators that she had a sexual relationship with him in the late aughts. It began on a work trip, when the hotel’s front desk informed her that Smiley had requested her to his room for business purposes. When she arrived, he made sexual advances toward her. She allegedly told him something along the lines of, “Look, I worked really hard for this job, and I am not trying to lose it because of a relationship with you,” upon which Smiley told her that it wouldn’t happen and that she was “smart,” but that “we just need to keep it a secret since I am your boss.”

The producer was terminated after others found out about the relationship; she was told work performance issues were the cause, but believes that Smiley had her fired because of simultaneous relationships he was carrying on with other women in the office, said the report.


To believe Smiley would be to dismiss these allegations as either bad faith interpretations or outright falsehoods.

What Smiley will try to prove once the trial kicks off Monday is that PBS used unfounded accusations and an unreliable investigation in order to terminate his contract, which the company wanted to sever because of its “tense” relationship with him.


You can read the full complaint below:

Staff writer, The Root.



Don’t try to date women you have power over, don’t dip your pen in company ink period.

These maxims have served me well. YMMV.