Top court to hear ‘Friends’ harassment case: Was foul language ‘creative necessity’?

July 22, 2004

The final review of the long-running TV series “Friends” may be penned by the California Supreme Court.

The court agreed Wednesday to decide whether writers’ sexually coarse comments on the set amounted to constitutionally protected free speech or might be considered sexual harassment of a female assistant.

The justices last considered the tension between harassment laws and freedom of speech in 1999, when a divided court upheld a San Francisco judge’s ruling banning repeated racial slurs in the workplace.

The current suit was filed by Amaani Lyle, who spent four months as an assistant to the writers on the show. She said writers constantly discussed their sex lives and fantasies about cast members, displayed crude drawings of women and used offensive language and gestures.

The behavior was not directed at her but made her work environment oppressive, she said. She also said the studio, which had an anti-harassment policy, had never warned her to expect such things at work.

In court statements, three male writers named as defendants acknowledged using sexually coarse and vulgar language, but said it was part of their creative process of producing scripts for a show that involved sexual situations and humor. “Friends” ended its 10-year run on NBC this May.

Lyle’s suit against the writers and the Warner Brothers studio was dismissed by a Los Angeles judge but reinstated by a state appeals court, which said a jury should decide whether she was subjected to a hostile work environment, based on either her sex or her race. Lyle is African American.

The writers’ claim of “creative necessity” is a potential defense in a harassment case but depends on the facts, the court said. If the jury finds that the behavior was part of their “necessary job performance, and not engaged in for purely personal gratification, or out of meanness or bigotry or other personal motives,” it may not have been harassment, the appellate panel said.

The appeal by the writers and the studio drew support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which said the appellate ruling would interfere with freedom of speech on college campuses.

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Cases: Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions et al.: Lawsuit Threatening Expansion of Sexual Harassment Codes