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Tavis Smiley Sues PBS Over Sexual Misconduct Suspension, Claims Race Was a Factor

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 (Jan. 8, 2011 - Source: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images North America
Talk show host Tavis Smiley speaks during the ‘Tavis Smiley’ panel at the PBS portion of the 2011 Winter TCA press tour held at the Langham Hotel on January 9, 2011 in Pasadena, California.

*Tavis Smiley sued PBS on Tuesday, claiming the network breached its contract and damaged his production company when it fired him in December over sexual-harassment allegations.

His suit also claims that some of the “tension” between PBS and Smiley was rooted in racism.

PBS “has presented complaints and hassled Mr. Smiley when he had African American guests who espoused controversial positions, and effectively tried to stop any such guests from appearing,” his complaint says. “By contrast, PBS never raised editorial issues or hassled Mr. Smiley when he had white guests who espoused equally controversial positions (if not even more controversial).”

PBS dropped his late-night interview program, “Tavis Smiley,” in December over what it said were “multiple, credible allegations” of workplace misconduct by the host. It did not detail the accusations, but news reports said Smiley allegedly had sexual relationships with employees of his company, TS Media, and that some feared their jobs were in jeopardy if they refused.

Smiley has repeatedly denied PBS’s accusations, noting the network never presented him with the names of his accusers, specific allegations, or details of an investigation into his workplace relationships that led up to his dismissal. He has vigorously defended himself in media interviews, and even staged a five-city tour last month in which he led panel discussions about workplace harassment.

Smiley has acknowledged that he had romantic relationships with colleagues over his 30-year career as a speaker, TV host and author, but that these were always consensual. In his suit, filed in D.C.’s Superior Court, he claims that PBS used “trumped up” accusations to drop distribution of his program after years of infighting over the program’s funding, promotion and content.

Smiley’s suit didn’t specify a request for damages but said his company has lost “multiple millions of dollars” as result of his termination, and has laid off about 20 employees.

In a statement, Jennifer Rankin Byrne, PBS’s vice president for corporate communications, called the lawsuit “meritless” and an attempt by Smiley “to distract the public from his pattern of sexual misconduct in the workplace.”

PBS, she wrote, took action against Smiley after a complaint prompted the network to hire an independent law firm to conduct an investigation, which included a “lengthy interview with Mr. Smiley.” The investigation “revealed that he had multiple sexual encounters with subordinates over many years and yielded credible allegations of additional misconduct inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS.”

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