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Hollywood casting couch is targeted in California harassment law changes

Hollywood casting couch is targeted in California harassment law changes
Producer Harvey Weinstein was fired from his film studio following reports that he sexually harassed women over several decades. (Loic Venance / AFP / Getty Images)

California lawmakers are taking aim at the casting couch.

After a year of horror stories from women about alleged sexual misconduct at the hands of powerful men such as producer Harvey Weinstein and talk-show host Charlie Rose, California lawmakers are poised to revise a 1994 sexual harassment law to make clear it applies to producers and directors. The amendment would add regulatory oversight for the first time and make it easier for victims to file a complaint.

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“The key is that the law also recognizes that harassment can occur even before a formal professional relationship exists, because the harasser has power to help a person’s career and that potential is being exploited,” said Jessica Stender, senior counsel at the San Francisco-based advocacy group Equal Rights Advocates, one of the sponsors.

Such allegations were leveled recently against Leslie Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS Corp., who was accused of sexual harassment by six women in an article published by the New Yorker, including claims he sabotaged the careers of some when they spurned his advances. In the article, Moonves acknowledged he may have made some women uncomfortable decades ago, but said he never used his position to harm anyone’s career. The CBS board is investigating the claims and Moonves remains in his position.

Moonves is among at least 475 high-profile executives and employees accused of harassment or other misconduct since the #MeToo movement increased scrutiny of all executive behavior over the last 18 months, according to a tally updated daily by the crisis-consulting firm Temin & Co. Of those, 88, or about 19%, were in the entertainment industry, including 28 directors, producers and agents, the data show.

U.S. and California law already bars sexual harassment in an employer-employee relationship and with customers and vendors, and California law specifically protects contractors. The specific section to be modified deals with professional relationships, where victims are harassed while seeking advice, treatment or mentorship.

The provision, Section 59.1 of the Unruh Civil Rights Act, has always covered professional and quasi-professional relationships — such as those involving doctors, lawyers, real-estate agents and teachers, Stender said. With the recent abuses in Hollywood, adding specific language for directors and producers is a way of calling out that the law also included those relationships, she said.

“The power dynamics exist and will continue to exist, and sadly, I don’t see that necessarily changing,” Stender said. “However, the No. 1 important part of this bill is it gives people a clear avenue for redress if they are harassed. Would-be harassers are made aware that this type of behavior is unlawful and will not be tolerated.”

A key provision of the revised code places enforcement under the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which oversees other employment harassment claims, Kevin Kish, the agency’s director, said in an interview. Previously, a victim had to hire a lawyer and go to court directly, and few people have used the provision, he said.

“If we get a complaint of any kind and we determine that there is merit, then we’re the ones who file the complaint in court, if we can’t mediate it, if we can’t successfully resolve it,” Kish said. With the changes, the agency could also initiate investigations, without a formal complaint from a victim, he said.

The bill with the revisions is just a few votes away from the governor’s desk. If it clears the last state Assembly committee and then the Assembly floor, it will be sent back to the state Senate, which has already approved it, for a procedural vote. The changes add a reference to investors, to highlight that venture capitalists who abuse their positions also come under the provisions of the section, she said.

A crackdown in Hollywood makes sense because the highest rates of sexual harassment occur in the media industry, according to the July 11 report “What #MeToo Means for Corporate America,” released by the Center for Talent Innovation. Two out of five women in media have been harassed by a colleague, and more than one in five men in the industry have been harassed, according to the January survey of 3,213 employees in a variety of white-collar occupations.

“Those in the worlds of media and entertainment go public for a living,” said Davia Temin, whose company has been tracking accusations. “It makes sense that the accusations are more public, as well. Moreover, they can tend to move among companies, thus the infrastructure for reporting is either not so strong, or not there at all.”

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