State's high court hears from 'Friends'

Harassment charge from production days puts free speech at issue

By Joyce Howard Price

Washington Times, June 22, 2004

Free-speech groups want the California Supreme Court to overturn an appellate ruling that allowed a writers’ assistant for the TV comedy “Friends” to pursue a sexual harassment claim because of bawdy banter between the show’s writers.

The appeals court said a plaintiff in a sexual harassment case “does not need to be a direct victim” and can pursue a sexual harassment claim exclusively on the basis of hearing speech at work that is sexual in nature.

Groups protesting the decision by the California Court of Appeal in the case of Lyle vs. Warner Brothers Television Productions et. al., say the ruling could be used to redefine constitutionally protected expression as unprotected “harassment.”

“This … legal decision could destroy the free and open exchange of ideas both on and off campus. If this decision is not overturned, it would transform ‘harassment’ into the exception that swallowed the First Amendment,” said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Amaani Lyle, the plaintiff, said she was subjected to harassment in 1999 by the frequent sexual banter of the writers while they discussed ideas and developed story lines for the show.

Miss Lyle, a writers’ assistant who was terminated after four months, said both male and female writers made “sexually offensive comments and jokes during writers’ meetings.”

Miss Lyle said she was not the target of any of the comments, but that the remarks were derogatory to women in general, and therefore created a “hostile environment” for her work.

In her lawsuit, Miss Lyle said one male writer referred to “his sexual fantasies involving female actors on the show.” She said a “constant banter” went on between this man and another male writer about the latter’s missed opportunity to have sex with the actress.

Miss Lyle, who is black, was fired after four months by two of the writers she complained about. They said they fired her for poor job performance, according to court documents.

She filed suit, claiming she was fired based on race and sex discrimination.

The Court of Appeal said it could not find evidence she was wrongfully terminated. But it said “triable issues of fact exist” as to Miss Lyle’s “causes of action for sexual and racial harassment” against Warner Bros. and three writers.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education joined the Center for Individual Rights and the National Association of Scholars in submitting an amicus (friend of the court) brief supporting Warner Bros. Television’s request for a review of the ruling.

“First, it is time for this court to address the important concerns raised by the clash between ‘hostile work environment’ employment claims and the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as well as by the California Constitution,” the brief said.

“Second, if allowed to stand, the Court of Appeal’s decision will chill a great deal of protected speech ?? much of it with a political or pedagogical purpose ?? on university campuses throughout California,” the brief said.

The amicus brief, written by lawyer Frederic D. Cohen of Encino, Calif., says its “most essential argument” is that writers’ offices, like universities, are “communicative workplaces” that encourage and depend on uninhibited dialogue.

Rules that give individuals the power to punish anyone who offended them could spell the end of the open exchange of ideas, the brief contends.

Warner Bros. Television produced the “Friends” comedy about a group of six friends living in New York City. The show ended its 10-year run in May.