WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, taking on a sexual harassment case likely to have everyday impact in U.S. factories and offices, agreed yesterday to spell out when it is against the law to use smutty language or tell dirty jokes on the job.
The answer will come in the case of a 41-year-old Nashville, Tenn., woman, who quit her job nearly six years ago after what she says was "constant" use of offensive sexual talk by the company president.
He insists he was just joking when he said such things as, "Let's go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate your raise."
Teresa Harris, shouting with delight when she learned from a reporter that the court had voted to hear her appeal, said she had "given up hope."
Noting that two lower courts had refused even to write opinions in ruling against her, she said she felt "like I've been stonewalled by all these men."
The lawyers for Forklift Systems Inc., her former employer in Nashville, unsuccessfully urged the court to turn down her appeal, denouncing her as "a four-time married, white female" who had voluntarily joined in after-hour "bull sessions" with fellow workers and had "swapped" dirty jokes and "utilized language, herself, that sank below the generally accepted norm."
In another order yesterday, the court agreed to decide whether federal civil rights law protects individuals who are accused of crimes when prosecutors have absolutely no evidence to support the charges.
The issue is raised by a Macomb, Ill., man accused wrongly by a police informer of selling a substance that was a cocaine look-alike; those charges were dismissed, and he sued for "malicious prosecution."
Lower courts blocked his claim because he never had been put in jail or lost job opportunities as a result of his troubles with the law.
The Supreme Court will decide those new cases in its next term, after holding hearings in the fall.
In the sexual harassment case, Ms. Harris' appeal asks the court to define the rights of workers to use federal civil rights law against sexual harassment when they are the targets of off-color remarks or sexual innuendo from their bosses or from other workers.
In Ms. Harris' case, the lower courts ruled that she could not pursue her claim because she did not prove she personally suffered "serious psychological injury" by the company's president.
She asked the Supreme Court to rule that if on-the-job comments would be considered "offensive" by any reasonable person and would make a woman feel she was working in "hostile" conditions, she is protected by the law against sexual harassment -- whether or not she suffers any psychological harm.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1986 that "unwelcome sexual advances" on the job are a form of illegal sexual harassment, even if they are not made a condition for keeping a job, getting a raise, or being promoted.
It has since indicated that sexist remarks may be a factor in sexual harassment, but it has not defined that notion. The new Tennessee case gives it a chance to do so.
The court has not faced a workplace sexual harassment case since that issue gained nationwide prominence during the Senate fight over the nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991.
He was accused by Anita Hill, his former aide, of making explicit sexual remarks to her. He denied all the charges, and there was no indication yesterday that he would refuse to join in the coming decision on the Tennessee case.
In Ms. Harris' case, a federal magistrate found that her boss was "a vulgar man" whose conduct "demeans the female employees at his workplace" but that his comments were not "much more than annoying and insensitive."
While Ms. Harris was working as rental manager for the forklift company, Charles Hardy, the firm's president, said such things to her as: "You're a woman, what do you know?" "You're a dumb-ass woman," and, "We need a man as the rental manager."
At one point, he suggested that she promise a customer a sexual favor to get his account.
Mr. Hardy did not deny that he said those things. And he did not deny that he asked Ms. Harris and other female workers to retrieve coins from his front pants pockets, and to bend down and pick up objects he dropped intentionally while making comments about how they looked as they did so.
He insisted that everything was done in a joking way and that all other women on the job took it that way.
Ms. Harris finally quit after Mr. Hardy promised to stop the comments but failed to do so. She took her complaint first to federal equal employment officials and then to court.
Although the U.S. magistrate who first heard her case wrote an extensive opinion telling why he was throwing out her case, higher-level courts simply ratified those reasons without commenting on their own.