Calif. High Court Rules Obscene Speech Not Always Workplace Harassment

Rhett Pardon
SAN FRANCISCO — In a ruling that could help protect adult entertainment companies from lawsuits, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that obscene speech is not always workplace harassment.

The justices agreed with Warner Bros. Television Productions that explicit comments in staff meetings during the production of “Friends” TV scripts were part of the creative process and, therefore, the studio and its writers could not be sued for workplace harassment.

Some of the comments queried were relative to the defendants’ own sexual experiences, the making of sexually explicit drawings in an erotic “coloring book” one of the defendants kept on his desk, speculation about the sex lives of the actors on the show, relation of sexual fantasies, repeated use of the “F word” and a Yiddish word for penis, disparaging remarks about women’s breasts, and simulated masturbation, among other things.

Amaani Lyle, 32, claims she was constantly subjected to comments and jokes made by the writers and producers during meetings.

But the justices thought different. Sometimes vulgarity is not just acceptable but necessary in the workplace, they said.

Lyle, who is black, worked for the show for four months, as a writer’s assistant. Producers of the show say she was fired because she could not type fast enough and that dialog developed during meetings was often missing as a result.

California Justice Marvin Baxter, who wrote for the majority of the court, said Lyle had no case for sexual harassment claims because she could not show that the offensive speech was directed at her or at other women in the workplace and because “considering the totality of the circumstances, especially the nature of the writers’ work, the facts largely forming the basis of plaintiff’s sexual harassment action ... did not present a triable issue whether the writers engaged in harassment ‘because of ... sex.’”

The case is Lyle vs. Warner Brothers Television Productions, No. S125171.