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The ‘Friends’ of Free Speech

One of the most important cases having to do with free speech on campus right now is playing out in the California Supreme Court. FIRE has joined a number of other organizations as an amicus (friend of the court) in the case of Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions et al., which was brought by an ex–writers’ assistant for the TV show Friends. It seems that the job of a writers’ assistant is basically to type down most or all of the things that are said in writers’ meetings so that the writers don’t lose any story or joke ideas. It’s something like being a court reporter—you don’t participate in the writing sessions; you just record them. The plaintiff in the case, Amaani Lyle, is claiming that the Friends writers’ sexual joking during the process of writing scripts constituted hostile-environment sexual harassment in that workplace because many of the jokes were derogatory to women.

While this situation might seem far removed from FIRE’s usual subject matter, one has to keep in mind that universities are workplaces too. Colleges and universities are filled with employees, from students to professors to groundskeepers and dining hall staffers. If the California Supreme Court upholds the state appellate court decision in favor of Lyle, any one of these people who might be offended by classroom speech would have standing to sue the college for harassment. As we point out in our press release, any class with a sexual theme would be at great risk, and, of course, anyone expressing politically incorrect opinions on hot topics such as affirmative action or gay rights might find their speech branded “harassment.” One can only imagine the speech codes that universities would institute if any controversial decision could get them sued! FIRE and the other amici in the case are working to make sure this doesn’t happen.

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