The Supreme Court last week brought needed clarity to the subject of sexual harassment. The rulings should make it easier for workers claiming damage from such harassment to know when to sue, and for employers to know how to avoid such lawsuits.
In essence, the court cleared the way for more effective action against what it termed "a persistent problem" in the American workplace.
This is an example of the court moving with vigor into an area of law that has quickly grown in importance and public awareness, but where lines of definition have been blurred.
In one key decision, a seven-justice majority found that an employer is liable to be sued for sexual harassment regardless of whether a supervisor's threats against an employee - for example, no promotion without sexual favors - are carried out.
In a second decision, the same majority held that an employer, in this case a city government, was liable for a pervasive, longtime atmosphere of harassment even though it had a formal policy against such harassment.
In reaching its decisions, the court also spelled out the dimensions of liability. When harassment has a "tangible" consequence, like a poor work assignment, liability is absolute. When such tangibility is lacking, employers can still be liable unless (1) they have a clear policy against harassment - including how to report such behavior, that is diligently made known to workers - or (2) such a policy exists and the employee bringing suit "unreasonably" fails to take advantage of it.
Thus the highest legal authority in the land has made clear to businesses and governments what is required of them. It's no more than any well-run, rightly motivated business should want to do. At the same time, individuals who may feel threatened by harassment have a clearer sense of where they stand under the law.
Sexual harassment is not a problem that can ultimately be eradicated by legislative effort or judicial interpretation. Its roots lie in distorted, immoral thinking. Such thinking is countered by moral and spiritual teaching that emphasizes every man's and woman's right to be valued as much more than a physical object.
The Supreme Court has now drawn lines that will support that right.