CA High Court Takes Workplace Speech Case

July 22, 2004 ( - The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could expand the boundaries of workplace speech that could be considered sexual harassment.

In the present case, Amaani Lyle, a writers’ assistant on “Friends,” filed suit against Warner Bros Television Production and Bright Kauffman Crane Prods, three writers and a producer after she was fired in October 1999 because she was not able to quickly and accurately record the writers’ jokes and comments as they brainstormed story lines. Lyle claimed the firing was a retaliatory act and sued for sexual and racial harassment, according to a Reuters report.

While a trial court initial dismissed all of Lyle’s claims, a state appeals court upheld the harassment claims. The appeals court said a jury should decide if that workplace speech amounted to harassment and that the defendants could be liable for damages even though there was no evidence that they acted with intent to harass Lyle because of her race or sex.

Defendants are worried that a ruling in favor of Lyle could have broad implications. For example, with such a legal precedent the defendants argue that movie theater crew members could claim to be offended by the language and images. Similarly, students in an art class could claim to be offended by sexually themed paintings on display for analysis and discussion.

Several groups have filed friend-of-the-court briefs to protest the appeals court decision, including:

  • Motion Picture Association of America;
  • Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers;
  • Writers Guild of America.

The state high court will most likely take up the case later this year or in 2005.