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‘Friends’ lawsuit brings up free speech issues

Assistant says she was subjected to sexual harassment in writing meetings
/ Source: The Associated Press

California’s top court heard arguments Tuesday in the case of a former assistant on the hit show “Friends” who claims she was subjected to sexual harassment in writing meetings.

Citing free-speech rights, lawyers for the show’s producers, Warner Bros. Television Productions, insisted that trash talk during writers’ meetings was part of the creative process and, therefore, the studio and its writers not culpable.

“The writers needed to, as part of their jobs, take on taboo subject matter,” Warner Bros. attorney Adam Levin told the justices.

“The writers needed to have the freedom and breathing room to explore sexual topics,” he explained. “That’s what the show dealt with.”

The case was initiated in 2000 by Amaani Lyle, now 32. She charged that the raw sexual remarks that peppered work sessions and conversations added up to harassment against women. The state Supreme Court justices will weigh if a lower court’s decision to let the case proceed to a jury trial should stand or be disallowed.

Lyle was fired almost six years ago after four months on the job, the producers citing her secretarial skills as cause.

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Lyle’s attorney, Scott Ohara Cummings, said many of the sexual vulgarities had nothing to do with the show. He said one writer drew a vagina during the meetings.

“That’s an offensive thing that shouldn’t be in the workplace,” Cummings said.

Warner Bros. acknowledges that some, but not all, of the sexually explicit talk Lyle alleges did take place, but feels the comments were a vital part of the creative process.

Levin said Lyle had been warned when she was hired that explicit discussions were part of developing the sexually charged NBC comedy about six friends in New York.

Lyle alleged she was offended by repeated references to the actors’ sex lives and to the writers’ own sexual exploits. She also grew tired, she charged, of repeated profanity, talk about women’s breasts and even simulated masturbation allegedly performed during script meetings.

In making the earlier ruling, a state appeals court said the writers’ creative process was protected speech, but that Lyle also has a right to try to prove that the vulgarities strayed beyond that creative process and perhaps violated workplace harassment rules.

The Supreme Court has to rule within 90 days.