CNN.com is reporting that a group of Philadelphia policemen and women have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the Philadelphia police department for race discrimination on the ground that the department allegedly permitted its white officers, including some of supervisory rank, to maintain a private website that allegedly was used as a forum for racially offensive comments. It is alleged that the website created a hostile work environment, in part, because it was both accessed and discussed in the workplace. Although the police department has disavowed any responsibility for the website, which was password protected, questions necessarily will arise regarding whether the department had knowledge of the content on the website and acquiesced to it and whether it permitted the site to be operated during work time. Even if the department can establish it did not sanction or condone the website, the lawsuit still raises a number of interesting issues as to the extent to which an employer can be held liable for discriminatory and/or harassing conduct of its employees by supervisors while they all are off duty.
We don’t know whether the police department had a policy regulating its officers’ internet access, either on duty or off duty. Such a policy, if it exists and was enforced, might support the department’s attempt to distance itself from the racially-charged comments on the website. Similarly, the content and enforcement of its policy against harassment will undoubtedly be scrutinized in the months ahead. As it stands, the department faces what looks to be an arduous legal battle. In addition, the department undoubtedly will need to take action internally to ensure that any future employment decisions, such as promotions and terminations, aren’t tainted by the allegations in this complaint.
Here is a link to the CNN article: http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/07/17/police.racism.lawsuit/index.html, which appropriately warns that the complaint — to which it links — may be highly offensive to some.