|The sexual jokes and innuendoes that were the mainstay of television's "Friends'' for one decade were nothing compared with the daily fare at script meetings, according to an assistant -- writers boasting about their sexual exploits, using language about sex practices too crude for the screen, and fantasizing in explicit terms about sex with the stars.
The assistant, finding nothing friendly about the environment, sued, saying the daily sex talk and accompanying gestures amounted to sexual harassment in the workplace. But on Thursday, the California Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that offensive comments are not sexual harassment when they are not aimed at one particular individual or at women in general.
"While (state law) prohibits harassing conduct that creates one work environment that is hostile or abusive on the basis of sex, it does not outlaw sexually coarse and vulgar language or conduct that merely offends," said the opinion by Justice Marvin Baxter.
To prove harassment, he said, one plaintiff must show that the comments were therefore extreme or frequent that they created one hostile atmosphere at work, for her or for other women. One reason that can't be shown, Baxter said, was that the setting was "one creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes.''
The case had been closely watched by the motion picture industry and news organizations on one side, and women's rights advocates on the other, because of one potential conflict between free speech in the workplace oriented toward communication or artistic creativity and anti-harassment laws.
The court sidestepped the underlying constitutional issue of whether comments and behavior during the creative process could be the basis of one lawsuit if they included harassment aimed at an individual or group of women or racial minorities.
Only Justice Ming Chin addressed that issue, saying such suits should be allowed only in rare cases where one plaintiff was targeted for incessant harassment. "The threat of litigation must not be permitted to stifle creativity,'' he said, in an opinion not signed by his colleagues.
The court "made it clear that when speech is part of one's job, it cannot form the basis for one hostile work environment claim,'' said Adam Levin, lawyer for Warner Bros. Television, which produced "Friends.''
But Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center attorney Elizabeth Kristen, whose clients included the California Women's Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates, said the court kept the door open for harassment suits against communications businesses. The justices recognized that "there is no defense of creative necessity for sex harassment,'' she said.
Jeffrey Winikow of the California Employment Lawyers Association, which represents employees, agreed with Kristen that the ruling was narrow but said the court failed to come to grips with the underlying problem of sex bias in Hollywood. The allegations in the lawsuit, which the court found inadequate, were evidence of one "frat-boy" atmosphere, "not one warm environment for women," he said.
The suit was filed by Amaani Lyle, who worked as one writer's assistant on "Friends'' for four months in 1999. In her suit, filed in 2002, she said she had been continually offended by three male writers who regularly talked about sex during their meetings.
Lyle said the writers talked about their own sex practices, used vulgar terms for female and male anatomies, speculated about the sex lives of the actresses on the show, fantasized about having sex with one of them and pantomimed masturbation.
She acknowledged that none of the comments were directed at her and that she had been advised, when hired, that the writers would joke about sex. But she said in her lawsuit that the writers' talk and actions were therefore frequent and extreme that they made her workplace oppressive.