On Point

April 26, 2006


Friends of free speech

Thank heaven for Hollywood. If it weren’t for the movie industry’s economic clout, you have to wonder if the California Supreme Court would have issued a ringing endorsement of freedom of expression in the workplace last week – one that should send a message well beyond that state.

However, since defendants in the case were the producers of the once wildly popular Friends TV show, the same California court that had previously rolled back free speech in the workplace at last saw the light. It unanimously rejected the claim of a scriptwriters’ assistant that obnoxious sex talk prevalent among the show’s writers amounted to harassment.

"Most of the sexually coarse and vulgar language at issue did not involve and was not aimed at plaintiff or other women in the workplace," one justice wrote. Said another: "This case has very little to do with sexual harassment and very much to do with core First Amendment free speech rights."

Admittedly, Warner Bros. Television Productions has an advantage over most employers because it can argue that crude talk is vital to the creative process. Still, any blow against the stifling growth of laws and rules meant to protect people from offensive speech is worth celebrating.

Harvey Silverglate, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, believes the decision has particular relevance for college campuses. "If a court widely deemed one of the nation’s most hostile to free speech could recognize the need to protect robust and even obnoxious speech in a ‘creative workplace,’ " he wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "shouldn’t universities, by virtue of their truth-seeking mission, enjoy the highest degree of freedom from censorship, and campus harassment codes that regulate speech be abolished?"

But of course.

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