Almost 20 years ago, Amaani Lyle set out to tackle the sexual harassment and discrimination she said she suffered as an assistant writer on the biggest TV show, Friends. But the legacy her trip to the California Supreme Court created was not what she hoped all those years ago.
Known throughout Hollywood as “the Friends cases, ”more than a dozen former Warner Bros. employees. say Lyle’s failed trial has been used for years by managers and in HR training to educate new hires that free speech in creative environments is protected, even language people may regard as bad. sexual or callous harassment. The message, they add, has a chilling effect when issues of harassment or discrimination arise in the workplace.
“It’s a precedent that people are using to compensate themselves and shirk responsibility,” Lyle told BuzzFeed News.
Warner Bros. declined to comment. But the studio’s equal employment opportunity policy deals specifically with the potentially offensive language that is part of the creative process.
“As a member of this creative community, we should all be aware that jobs in the entertainment industry may include or require exposure to sexually explicit discussions and material, containing nudity or partial nudity, or otherwise related to matters that might be considered inappropriate for other workplaces, “the policy states.” In keeping with its commitment to a workplace free from unlawful harassment, the Company expects that such discussions or documents are not directed against a person because of their sex, gender, race, sexual orientation or other protected characteristics. that an employee feels uncomfortable with discussions or other activities related to the creation, production or distribution of our filmed entertainment products, that employee should discuss the matter with his or her immediate supervisor, the management of human resources department or staff. “
But Lyle said she felt totally ignored and even suffered retaliation when she raised her concerns. In 2002, she filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing after being fired from Friends, naming executive producers Adam Chase and Gregory Malins as well as producer Andrew Reich. Chase, Malins and Reich confirmed at the time that some of Lyle’s claims in his trial were true, but said they were not guilty of harassment, adding that their sexual comments were not aimed at Lyle and that they had been a necessary part of the creative process. .
The case was quickly presented as a free speech issue, and the entertainment industry and First Amendment organizations rallied against it. The high-profile case eventually reached the California Supreme Court, and in 2006 a judge ruled that the writers didn’t violate any laws by making sexual comments because they weren’t specifically directed or told about. from anyone in the writers’ room.
Lyle thinks the reasoning wouldn’t fly in a post- # MeToo era. But the fact that it’s still used as an example in HR training sessions and in schools shows that Hollywood still has a long way to go in turning phrases like “Time’s Up” into action.
“You can put out all the smoke and the mirrors and the dog and pony shows you want, but here’s the bottom line: if we still teach this in schools, if it’s part of our curriculum and still is. a prison-free card exit in our HR meetings, so we are not advancing the ball on the pitch in terms of inclusion, diversity and eradicating misogyny, and whoever is complicit in it is only part of the machine, ”she said.
Lyle was hired to work as a writer’s assistant on Friends in 1999 for the sixth season of the series. Before landing the coveted position, she attended Emerson University and worked for Nickelodeon on shows like Kenan & Kel and All that. Chase and Malins got Lyle to take detailed notes during the screenwriters’ brainstorming sessions which they could then come back to by inventing scripts and dialogues. While there, Lyle said the male writers, mostly white, frequently made sexual and racist remarks, including graphic details of their own sex lives. While the court ruled that the writers weren’t harassing Lyle because the comments weren’t aimed at or about her, she said she was still responsible for recording every word mentioned in the play.
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“At the time, they said:”Friends is an adult themed show and what’s going on in that room is very private, but now Friends is wrapped up on Nickelodeon. Is it an adult-themed show? “
Lyle said she believed she was fired for suggesting Friends The character Joey (Matt LeBlanc) is expected to have a black love interest to increase the diversity of the show and tell his boss about a racist joke made by another producer.
It was after these incidents, according to Lyle, that the producers told her she needed to improve her typing speed, which came as a surprise as she said that for many of the staff writers she was their favorite assistant.
“All the writers’ assistants were good, but I took the most notes,” she said. “The reason for the layoff was slow typing speed, but you can’t do it when I’m the only woman of color on the staff and have no concrete proof that I wasn’t doing my job. “
When she visited Warner Bros. HR and complained about her treatment, Lyle said “nothing was investigated” and she was ultimately fired. Warner Bros. declined to comment when asked about the complaint.
“I said, ‘May I know what happened? Where can I see any kind of documents? Can I talk to the producers? ‘ I was not allowed to talk to the producers, I was discouraged [by producers] even go to HR. Back then there was no avenue, there was no HR advocacy, there was no one to represent you if you thought something was wrong, if you needed to. kind of mitigation, ”Lyle said. “I knew at the time that there were serious gaps in Warner Bros.’s hiring, firing and human resources systems, I knew there were serious gaps and that it was of a David and Goliath situation. “
She initially sued for racial discrimination and unfair dismissal, but after speaking to her lawyer about the sexual remarks and comments in the writers’ room, Lyle also sued for sexual harassment.
“I had it so normalized where I was like, ‘Wait, isn’t that just a normal thing?’” She said. “I was so steeped in this that I thought, ‘Wait, isn’t that just one thing? That’s what people do, right? And my lawyer said to me, “Hell no, that’s not what people are supposed to do.”
But Lyle wasn’t just up against one of Hollywood’s biggest and most powerful studios. The entertainment industry has mobilized to sign a defense memorandum for Warner Bros. and the environment in the Friends the Writers’ Room, arguing that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Lyle “would cast a severe chill on the creative process.” The dossier was filed by the Writers Guild of America and supported by the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and over 130 leading Hollywood producers, writers and directors, including Norman Lear, Larry David, Laura Kightlinger and Yvette Denise . Lee Bowser.
Representatives for Lear, David, Kightlinger and Bowser did not respond to BuzzFeed News requests for comment.
“It’s a shocking list of people claiming to be ‘awake’ and for the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, but they’re all on this list,” Lyle said. “It just doesn’t make sense that people don’t even say ‘Hey, I’ve changed my mind’ or ‘My mind is different and things are different now.'”
After being fired from FriendsLyle continued to work on a few smaller projects before leaving the entertainment industry for good, joining the Air Force, and working in written communications for the Pentagon. She didn’t really have a choice, because according to Lyle, “in the 90s and early 2000s, if you said anything, you were pretty much blackballed.”
“I wanted this job so badly that a million writers would have killed to be in the place I was in. Friends”Said Lyle. “I know that. But at what cost is this seat?
Although she said she had no ill will towards the Friends franchise or the stars of the series, she wants Warner Bros. stop using the case as a precedent to intimidate other employees and prevent them from reporting incidents of sexual harassment. More than a dozen former employees told BuzzFeed News that the Lyle case was cited as part of sexual harassment training, adding that the message was clear: report a coworker or supervisor for doing sexual remarks or comments that might make employees uncomfortable is no easy task. .
“They’ve perverted this business into something like some kind of bullying, some kind of scary tactic in a very mafia way to silence employees and not foster an open and transparent work environment,” Lyle said. “At some point, they’ll have to take responsibility and realize that they’re propelling the systemic issues that keep those issues alive and giving them bandwidth and oxygen. They are the ones who do that.
At a time when employees are trying to hold Hollywood executives more accountable than ever, Lyle is hopeful for change, but this heightened awareness of harassment and abusive working conditions is not enough. Real change, she says, comes from taking action.
“I tried to continue [Warner Bros.] and hold them to account. I lost and was ready to move on and let things unfold as they will, but [decades later] Hollywood imploded on itself, and it had very little to do with me or me. There were a lot of very visible people, prominent actresses who were now talking about being victims, and people cared more. They didn’t care when it was just an anonymous girl living in Hollywood, ”Lyle said. “We have all the optics without really changing things organically, and systemically, we are not going to move the ball on the field. You can’t have campaigns like #MeToo and Time’s Up if you always scare people with my case. “