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Keep Your Laws Off My "Friends" By: Robyn Blumner
St. Petersburg Times | Wednesday, July 21, 2004

FrontPage Magazine's parent organization, The Center for the Study of Popular Culture, has a vested interest in the story below. The Individual Rights Foundation filed an amici letter in support of Warner Brothers' petition for review of a recent decision of the Court of Appeal which needlessly and erroneously interpreted sexual harassment law in an overly broad way that menaces free speech and artistic freedom. Robyn E. Blumner, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, agrees with our position on this little-known case. -- The Editors.

I caught an episode of Friends the other night and paid special attention to the sex jokes.

In one scene, Chandler was kidded about a game of ring toss which included a bagel and a particular part of his anatomy. Joey quipped that the bagel had a really small hole. Later in the show, Ross was hiding behind an old girlfriend's couch while she and her new love interest were making out. When Ross got caught, he proclaimed that it should comfort them to know that at least he wasn't touching himself.

I recount all this to demonstrate that Friends is an adult situation comedy. The sometimes tawdry banter is hidden behind benign, PG-rated characters, but the humor is highly sexual. The show also has more Emmy nominations than I have fingers to count and is one of the top-rated comedy shows of all time.

You might think, in a country that fiercely protects freedom of expression, the creative process of writing a television show like this would be beyond the interest or the reach of law.

You might think that, but you would be wrong.

In our oversensitive, overlawyered world, there is a case right now wending its way through the California court system which claims that the way the Friends writers went about developing jokes and story ideas was racially and sexually harassing to one of the typists whose job it was to transcribe the verbal patter.

Amaani Lyle, an African-American, was hired as a writers' assistant in June 1999. Her primary function was to type really fast as the writers discussed plot development, character dialogue and jokes. Apparently, she wasn't very good at her job. She couldn't keep up and the writers complained that she would miss key pieces of dialogue and the subtlety of their humor. After four months she was fired.

That's the way it should work: Bad at job, you're fired. But because courts have opened the floodgates to "hostile work environment" claims, where employees sue for suffering embarrassment or hurt feelings on the job, Lyle believed she had recourse in the courts.

Her suit against three Friends writers as well as Warner Bros. and NBC claimed that she was discriminated against on the basis of race and gender because she was exposed to lewd and bigoted jokes during the writing process. Not that the jokes were directed at her - they weren't - but she was forced to be in the room when they were told.

Lyle complained that one writer used to draw in a "coloring book" that had pictures of female cheerleaders with their legs apart. During brainstorming sessions he would draw genitalia on them and then leave the book open on his desk. She complained that the writers made vulgar sex-related jokes, talked about their sexual fantasies, disparaged women and made motions pretending to masturbate. They also mocked black people, she said.

Admittedly this is tasteless, juvenile stuff, but should it be against the law? These are writers trying to come up with ideas for an adult-themed sitcom. Should the courts really have a seat in that room to police the process? And if the courts belong there, might they also have a place in curating a museum exhibit or rewriting a play?

Now, before I trash the entire court system for entertaining such a patently frivolous and dangerous lawsuit, I have to give credit to Judge David Horowitz of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County (no relation to David Horowitz of FrontPage Magazine -- The Editors). Horowitz not only threw the case out of court but took the rare step of telling Lyle to reimburse more than $400,000 in the other side's attorney fees.

Had Horowitz's sage decision been allowed to stand it would have provided a safe harbor for the creative community, declaring that the law wouldn't countenance suits against writers and artists for bad taste, ugly sentiments and potty mouth. However, that was not to be. An appellate court set aside the entire attorney fee award and resurrected Lyle's harassment claims, allowing her to go to a jury.

Even if a jury ultimately agrees that the Friends writers were not harassing Lyle, the damage will have been done. Just letting this case get to a jury will undermine the First Amendment in incalculable ways.

Most creative folks do not have the financial wherewithal to defend themselves against a lawsuit. Their only defense is to not get sued in the first place, which means self-censoring in a way that could handcuff the artistic process.

The defendants are asking the California Supreme Court to take up the case and then put an end to it on First Amendment grounds. That is exactly what should happen. Just as assuredly as Ross should have ended up with Rachel, Lyle should lose.

If raunchy discussions of sex offend her to the point of litigating then she should look for work on a different Friends show: Barney and Friends.

Robyn E. Blumner is the Sunday op-ed columnist for the St. Petersburg Times.

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