John A. Humbach on “Pornography in the Cockpit: Did Common Sense Take Flight?”

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Sexual harassment is a serious matter, and ought to be treated as such. Women (and men) who need to go out into the workplace for a living are legally entitled to do so without rude reactions to make them deeply uncomfortable about being where they are. But the law needs to comport itself adroitly in this area which, since it has to do with sex, is always at risk of falling over the line from seriousness to giddy giggles, ridicule or worse. It is therefore with chagrin that one reads some details of the case of the pilot who sued United Airlines over hidden pornography in the cockpits of her planes [blogged here  by Professor Ann Bartow].

No one defends the fools who secreted the inappropriate material in these obviously inappropriate places. Whether the airline could have done more than it did to root out the offensive media is debatable:particularly in light of reports that airline cockpits contain many things not endorsed by the carrier, including in  at least one case, 65 pounds of cocaine.  

Be that as it may, the more disturbing point for some is that the pilot in question, as a result of her unhappy pictorial discoveries,”developed a ‘severe condition’ that required her to take medication and, ultimately, to ground herself.”Now compared with most of us, airline pilots do not work very many hours per month, and most of their labor is not all that physically hard. But the one thing that does justify their top-of-the-scale paychecks is (one hopes) their imperturbability, their coolness under duress and their ability to respond to unexpected, alarming and extremely unpleasant situations with the utmost of unflappable calm. While dirty pictures are not the sort of shock that an airline pilot should have reason to expect, such images are nonetheless in wide circulation, one gathers. And therefore, one might hope, a pilot who stumbles across them would not be thrown into a severe medical condition.

Of course, the suspicion exists that the pilot in this case was not quite as fragile as her lawyer made her out. She had, after all, reportedly once worked in a store that sold pornographic magazines, sketched nudes as an artist and even attended photographic exhibitions that showed naked women:all legitimate activities in this day and age, but they bring us back to the original point.

What is the average person, fully aware of the prevalence of porn in our society, to think of a case like this? The million-dollar judgment against McDonalds for overly hot coffee brought oceans of ridicule on the personal-injury bar, who mostly represent people having serious legal needs. Precisely because sexual harassment is such an important matter, especially for those millions who toil unsung at less-than-pilot pay grades, one hopes this case will not become another”Exhibit A”in the public distaste for the law.    

-John A. Humbach

John Humbach is a Professor of Law at Pace University.  He has authored a number of articles in the areas of property law and professional responsibility, as well as computer-assisted instruction programs for first-year property students.  He is  recipient of the Pace University Award for Innovating in Teaching (2006) and  the author of the book  Whose Monet?  (2004). – Ed.

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5 Responses to John A. Humbach on “Pornography in the Cockpit: Did Common Sense Take Flight?”

  1. pippis_sister says:

    I think what is not being considered here is the impact of the intent of the harassment. Seeing “dirty pictures” is, indeed, very common. However, having unknown people use said pictures to send the message that you are not welcome at your place of work, let alone that you are perhaps being physically threatened, could understandably cause one emotional and physical duress. Even more so if your administration is unwilling to take your concerns seriously. I truly believe that sexual harassment almost always contains an inherent threat of bodily harm to women in a society where rape is considered entertainment.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    The targeted harassment continued for several years, and when the pilot complained, she suddenly started getting bad performance reviews. I’d think that would put a lot of stress on anybody.

    Maybe, not having even a fraction of the actual facts at her disposal, “the average person” would reserve judgment?

  3. rootless says:

    “The suspicion exists” strikes me as disingenuous. If Professor Humbach means “I suspect,” why doesn’t he say so? If he means “other people suspect,” why doesn’t he tell us who they are?

  4. rootless says:

    And it took me about 60 seconds to find an accurate record of the notorious McDonald’s case, which Professor Humbach’s offhand reference to a “million-dollar judgment” mischaracterizes. What about calling it “the McDonald’s severe burns to a 79-year-old who required two years of treatment” case, or the “McDonald’s refusal to settle for $20,000 with a plaintiff who incurred $11,000 in medical costs” case? The case is described at

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v._McDonald%27s_Restaurants

    and no doubt in plenty of journal articles; a professor of property law can’t be expected to keep up on personal injury, but then he seems a little behind the curve on discrimination law, too.

  5. Jhumbach says:

    Sometimes the symbolism transcends the reality. The way the McDonalds was (and still is) used, as a hammer on the”trial lawyers,”it seems to be clearly one of those situations.

    If good law is to retain the support of the people, which it requires to survive, this hard fact of life needs to be recognized and dealt with”adroitly.”That is my point.

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