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High Court Dismisses `Friends' Harassment Lawsuit

An assistant on the show had sued because she found the speech of some writers offensive.

April 21, 2006|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court threw out a sexual harassment lawsuit against the makers of the hit comedy "Friends" on Thursday, ruling that vulgar and coarse comments by the show's writers reflected the "creative workplace" for a comedy with sexual themes.

In ruling unanimously for Warner Bros. Television Productions, the state high court said the show's writers did not direct their lewd comments at the woman who sued them or at women particularly.

State law "does not outlaw sexually coarse and vulgar language or conduct that merely offends," Justice Marvin R. Baxter wrote for the court.

Baxter said the court based its decision "on the totality of the undisputed circumstances, particularly the fact the 'Friends' production was a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes."

Amaani Lyle, who was fired in 1999 after working for four months as a writers' assistant for "Friends," charged in her lawsuit that the show's male writers spoke graphically about their sexual preferences and experiences.

She said they mused about sexual matters involving actors Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette and David Schwimmer and simulated masturbating. One drew breasts and vaginas in a coloring book, and the three referred to some women with a four-letter vulgar word for the female anatomy, Lyle charged.

The writers said that their behavior occurred while working on a show that dealt with sexual material. In a statement after the decision, the writers -- Adam Chase, Gregory Malins and Andrew Reich -- said they were encouraged by the court's "staunch support of creative freedoms for writers everywhere."

"We maintain, as we have since Day 1 in this case, that the majority of the allegations the plaintiff made against us are complete and total fabrications," the writers said in a statement released by their lawyer.

Jeffrey K. Winikow, who represented a group of employment lawyers, called the ruling "indifferent toward the demeaning stereotypes of women in an industry that is overwhelmingly dominated by young, white men." Sexually abusive behavior by scriptwriters "will continue to create this atmosphere where a woman really has to desensitize herself to all forms of misogyny to succeed in that business," Winikow said.

But he said the ruling also "shouldn't give any comfort to television producers in Los Angeles" because it was based largely on the fact that the writers were producing scripts for a show about sexual situations.

In ruling for Warner Bros., the state high court said there was no dispute that the writers continually used sexually vulgar language while plotting scripts.

"The writers regularly discussed their preferences in women and sex in general," Baxter wrote, enumerating Lyle's charges. "Chase spoke of his preferences for blond women, a certain bra cup size, 'get[ting] right to sex' and not 'mess[ing] around with too much foreplay."

Before her hiring, Lyle was warned that she would be subject to sexual talk, the court said. The evidence also showed that the sexual discussions were not aimed at Lyle and that the conduct did not affect her work hours or duties, the court said.

Sexual harassment "is not established where a supervisor or co-worker simply uses crude or inappropriate language in front of employees or draws a vulgar picture," Baxter wrote, "without directing sexual innuendos or gender-related language toward a plaintiff or toward women in general."

In a separate opinion, Justice Ming W. Chin said a decision against Warner Bros. would have violated free speech guarantees in the state and U.S. constitutions.

Marshall Goldberg, a television writer who represented the Writers' Guild in the case, said the entertainment industry was "wary about what could happen" in Lyle's lawsuit. Thursday's ruling "tells them they can continue to create as freely as they want, and I think that is huge," he said.

"Audiences want something fresh. They want something surprising and they want something that rings true. None of that was going to happen if writers had to start pulling punches."

Adam Levin, who represented Warner Bros., said the ruling would not affect lawsuits in which offensive speech was targeted at a worker and made outside the creative process.

A lawyer for Lyle disagreed, calling the ruling "shocking."

"This sets way back the rights of women to be free from sexual harassment," the lawyer, Mark Weidmann, said.

Lyle, who is now living in Germany, could not be reached for comment. Warner Bros. says she was fired for typing too slowly.

Lyle, who is African American, also sued for racial harassment. She alleged that one of the writers made a joke about a black woman and a tampon. An appeals court will determine whether her race claim will also be dismissed.

Elizabeth Kristen, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, which argued on behalf of Lyle, said the ruling makes it more difficult for workers who sue over conduct that was not targeted at them. Kristen said she also feared the ruling might lead employers to believe they can prevent harassment suits by warning prospective workers of offensive conduct.

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