The nearly two-year legal saga between television host Tavis Smiley and PBS appears headed for its final chapter next month when the parties face off in trial. Central to the dispute is the meaning and scope of the morals clause in Smiley’s contract with PBS. PBS terminated its 14-year partnership with Smiley in 2017 for violating the clause after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Smiley surfaced. Smiley filed suit in February of 2018 for breach of contract claiming that PBS’s invocation of the morals clause is simply a pretext for racial discrimination. PBS countered alleging Smiley was the one who breached their agreement by violating the morals clause.
Although morals clauses are considered industry standard in Hollywood originating in the 1920s after silent-movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was famously accused of raping and killing an actress days after signing an unprecedented $3 million deal with Paramount Pictures, the precise meaning and scope of such clauses are notoriously ambiguous, making them often difficult to enforce. In this instance, Smiley’s 2015 contract – the agreement at issue in this dispute – provides that he “shall not commit any act or do anything which might tend to bring [him] into public disrepute, contempt, scandal, or ridicule, or which might tend to reflect unfavorably on PBS…”. This leads inevitably to questions of just what constitutes “public disrepute,” “contempt,” “scandal,” or “ridicule,” or counts as behavior that “might tend to reflect unfavorably on PBS.”
Washington D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams provided some clarity in a ruling on January 2, 2020 that any alleged misconduct that predates Smiley’s contract with PBS (i.e., before 2015) does not come within the scope of the provision. Since PBS claims its decision to terminate Smiley was based not only on misconduct that allegedly occurred before 2015 but also on misconduct that allegedly happened in 2015, 2016 and 2017, PBS’s counterclaim for breach of contract is still in play. But Smiley may argue that since many of the earlier allegations were reported before the parties entered into the 2015 agreement, PBS had knowledge of these allegations yet still signed Smiley, thus waiving whatever moral objections PBS may have had to Smiley’s alleged behavior.
Also, given the ambiguity of the provision, Smiley may be able to challenge whether the allegations against him actually reflected unfavorably on PBS in light of other hosts and public figures that have appeared on PBS who were similarly accused of sexual misconduct including Charlie Rose, David Letterman, and Plácido Domingo. The court may have hinted as to whether it would find such an argument persuasive when it denied Smiley’s motion to compel PBS to produce any records of other PBS personnel being accused of sexual misconduct as a “fishing expedition.” But it is the jury that will decide the parties’ fate come February.