The California Supreme Court made the Hollywood workplace safer for profanity on Thursday when it tossed a long-running sexual harassment suit filed by an assistant against producer Warner Bros. Television and the writers on NBC’s “Friends.”
Writing for the court, Justice Marvin Baxter held that the essence of a sexual harassment claim is disparate treatment on the basis of sex, and that the mere discussion of sex or the use of vulgar language does not constitute sexual harassment.
“The record discloses that 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,” the court wrote. Baxter added that sexually explicit language took place in a creative workplace where the job was generating stories for a comedy with adult themes.
Attorney Adam Levin of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, who represented Warner Bros. Television and many of the other defendants, said, “Now my clients can continue doing what they do best: Writing and producing hit television shows with knowledge that their speech is protected.”
While the decision will be condemned by plaintiffs’ lawyers, Warners and the embattled writers drew widespread support from the Writers’ Guild and individual members of the creative community while the case was pending. In addition, because of the First Amendment issues involved, several media groups filed amicus briefs in support of Warners.
Plaintiff Amaani Lyle sued Warners, NBC (which aired show), creators Bright Kauffman Crane Prods. and producer-writers Adam Chase, Gregory Malins and Andrew Reich in 2000 claiming racial and sexual harassment because of the constant profanity during script meetings.
In its decision Thursday, the court noted Lyle had been forewarned that the writers would use vulgar language and make sexual jokes, including stories about their own sexual experiences. Nonetheless, Lyle was offended by unceasing discussions about blonds, cup size, foreplay, a pornographic coloring book and constantly discussed sexual fantasies about the characters and actresses on “Friends.” During discovery, the writers acknowledged having these discussions. Lyle was fired after four months on the job for what was described as typing transcripts too slowly.
The trial court threw out the entire case, but on appeal, the California Court of Appeal found the issue of sexual harassment was one for a jury to decide. Both Warners and Lyle petitioned for high court review, but only Warners’ petition was accepted.