A fictional lawsuit over sexual harassment gained traction from current events to engage lawyers, judges and journalists in a conversation at the State Bar of Georgia Friday.
“If the events of the last year have taught people anything, it’s that you’ve got to deal with this stuff in real-time,” said SunTrust general counsel Ellen Fitzsimmons, explaining that she would take seriously and investigate such a complaint immediately, protecting the rights of the accuser as well as due process for the accused.
She was speaking in a panel discussion titled, “Sex, Lies and Hotel Receipts.” The group worked through a made-up story of an imaginary company and a complaint against its owner. It was a Fred Friendly-style exploration of the issues raised by sexual harassment claims, including challenges for companies, plaintiffs, attorneys, judges and media. The format is a tradition at the annual bar media conference.
Retired CNN executive and Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard Griffiths led the conversation. He asked Fitzsimmons if she was worried when the fictional corporate founder denied the charge—and accused the GC of failing job performance.
“No,” she said. “There is a difference between being unemployed and unemployable.”
She said an in-house lawyer’s client is always the company, not the individual executives.
“If I’ve sat on a Matt Lauer complaint for a decade, I’m unemployable,” she said.
When such a complaint is found to be credible, settlement makes sense for both sides, the panelists agreed.
Judge Amy Totenberg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia shed light on why that’s so.
“It’s extremely rare to have a sexual harassment case go to trial because of the sensitivity,” she said. In addition, the judge said, case law hasn’t caught up with the nuances of the charges in the #metoo movement. Cases that would be regarded by the public as examples of unacceptable behavior have in the past been found by the courts to be “not sufficiently severe,” she said.
Other panelists Friday discussed challenges to the First Amendment and to the media, particularly from the current president.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Kevin Riley said the route to protecting the First Amendment lies in its relevance to everyone, not just the media.
The fact that “any citizen can seek that public record” that a journalist seeks reveals the value of the First Amendment and its impact on people’s lives, Riley said.
A more lasting negative effect of the Donald Trump presidency could be the negative labels he’s given opponents, adversaries and media outlets—often on Twitter, Riley said. For example, the “failing New York Times.”
Kevin Sack, an Atlanta-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from that paper—and formerly with the AJC—said, “I bring you greetings from the failing New York Times.”
Sack went on to cite a list of statistics showing that The New York Times has experienced a surge in subscriptions and profits since Trump’s election. At least in the moment, the Times has benefited from a side effect of “attacks by purveyors of fake news,” Sack said.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms delivered the keynote speech for the conference over lunch. She said her law degree from Georgia State University has informed her thinking as an Atlanta City Council member and now as mayor.
And the mayor tied the interests of law and media together with a suggested test for decision-making. Imagine being followed by a news crew, she suggested.
“If it won’t look good on television, if it won’t look good in the newspaper,” the mayor said, “then you probably shouldn’t do it.”
The conference also included a live broadcast of the Georgia Public Broadcasting program, “Political Rewind,” with host Bill Nigut and AJC political columnist Jim Galloway.
Taking off from the day’s news about gun control legislation being introduced in Florida in response to the shooting tragedy in a Parkland high school, Nigut asked the audience to vote. Should teachers be armed, as the president suggested? Two or three people clapped. Should every school have armed security officers? A few more people responded. Should we enact state and federal laws to ban assault weapons or high volume ammunition capabilities? The room erupted in applause.