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Judge orders Tavis Smiley to pay $2.6m

Tavis Smiley, a former PBS host, was accused of sexual harassment by six women.Keith Alexander/Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A Washington, D.C., judge ordered former PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley to pay the network more than $2.6 million. The amount was about $1 million more than what PBS originally argued in court that Smiley owed after it was forced to cancel his contract upon learning six female employees had accused him of sexual harassment.

A D.C. Superior Court jury ruled March 4 that Smiley had violated his PBS contract. On Aug. 5, Judge Yvonne Williams who oversaw the three-week trial heard additional arguments from PBS and determined Smiley must pay PBS $1.9 million in damages associated with his final two seasons with the network, and another $703,000 in losses connected to the network’s underwriters who put up the funds to enable PBS to cover Smiley’s contract.


During the trial, the network had argued that Smiley owed it between $1.5 million and $1.7 million.

In her 10-page ruling, Williams wrote: ‘‘The court determines that the amount sought by PBS in liquidated damages is reasonable because it is the amount it paid to produce Season 13 and 14 of ‘The Tavis Smiley Show.’ ‘‘

Smiley’s attorneys could not be reached for comment on Judge Williams’s ruling on the damages.

The harassment accusations and subsequent verdict led to a dizzying downfall for Smiley, 55, who was awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and whose nightly show for 14 years became a must visit for politicians, actors, singers, and authors who also wanted to reach Black people within PBS’s core adult audience.

The trial was held at D.C. Superior Court because Smiley’s production company, TS Media, while based in Los Angeles, is incorporated in Washington.

During the trial, six women testified through video deposition that during their tenure with his company, Smiley had pressured them for sex or told lewd jokes.


Smiley took the stand twice and admitted to having intimate relationships with two of the women. PBS stipulates in its contracts that such relationships among its employees or contractors are prohibited. Smiley testified he never used his position as their boss to pressure or threaten them. He also said any jokes were innocent and not intended to offend.

After about a day and a half of deliberations, the jury of seven men and two women determined Smiley had violated his contract and acted counter to the network’s morals clause, which also prohibited on-air talent from participating in any public behavior that would negatively affect the employee or the network.

After delivering their verdict, several of the jurors said the cumulative testimonies of the women, each providing similar testimony, is what led them to their verdict.

One of Smiley’s attorneys, John Rubiner, said then his client planned to appeal.

The case — along with the details of the accusations against Smiley — would have never been made public if he had not sued PBS in 2018 for nearly $1 million. Smiley claimed the network had wrongfully terminated his contract without proof of the allegations. The network hired Washington corporate attorney Grace Speights and countersued.

Smiley was never charged criminally with any crimes based on the women’s accusations.