Nearly 20 years ago, Amaani Lyle set out to challenge the sexual harassment and discrimination she said she experienced as a writers’ assistant on the biggest show on television, Friends. But the legacy her journey to the California Supreme Court created hasn’t been what she hoped for all those years ago.
Known widely throughout Hollywood as “the Friends case,” more than a dozen former employees at Warner Bros. say Lyle’s failed lawsuit has been used for years by managers and in HR trainings to impress on new hires that free speech in creative environments is protected, even language that people may consider sexually harassing or insensitive. The message, they add, has a chilling effect when issues of harassment or discrimination come up in the workplace.
“It's a precedent that people are using to indemnify themselves and shirk any accountability,” Lyle told BuzzFeed News.
Warner Bros. declined to comment. But the studio's Equal Employment Opportunity policy, specifically addresses potentially offensive language being part of the creative process.
"As part of this creative community, we all must be cognizant that jobs in the entertainment industry may include or require exposure to discussions and material that are sexually explicit, contain nudity or partial nudity, or otherwise relate to topics that might be considered inappropriate for other workplaces," the policy states. "In keeping with its commitment to a workplace free of unlawful harassment, the Company expects that any such discussions or materials will not be directed at a person because of that individual’s sex, gender, race, sexual orientation or other protected characteristics. In the event that an employee becomes uncomfortable with discussions or other activities related to the creation, production, or distribution of our filmed entertainment products, that employee should discuss the issue with his or her immediate supervisor, department management or human resources staff."
But Lyle said she felt totally ignored and even retaliated against when she raised her issues. In 2002, she filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing after she was 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 her suit were true but said they were not guilty of harassment, adding that their sexual comments were not directed at Lyle and they had been a necessary part of the creative process.
The case quickly became framed as an issue of freedom of speech, and the entertainment industry and First Amendment advocacy organizations rallied against it. The highly publicized case eventually reached the California Supreme Court, and in 2006, a judge ruled that the writers had not violated any law by making sexual comments because they weren’t specifically directed at or said about anyone in the writers room.
Lyle believes that reasoning wouldn’t fly in a post-#MeToo era. But the fact that it’s still being used as an example in HR training sessions and at 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 of the smoke and mirrors and the dog and pony shows that you want, but here's the bottom line: If we are still teaching this in schools, if this is part of our curriculum and this is still a get out of jail free card in our HR meetings, then we're not moving the ball down the field in terms of inclusion, diversity, and eradicating misogyny, and anyone who is complicit in that is just part of the machine,” she said.
Lyle was hired to work as a writers’ assistant on Friends in 1999 for the sixth season of the show. Prior to landing the coveted gig, she attended Emerson University and worked for Nickelodeon on shows like Kenan & Kel and All That. Chase and Malins brought Lyle on to take detailed notes during writers’ brainstorming sessions that they could then look back on when coming up with storylines and dialogue. During her time there, Lyle said the mostly white, male writers made frequent sexual and racist remarks, including graphic details from their own sex lives. While the court ruled the writers were not harassing Lyle because the comments were not directed at her or made about her, she said that she was still tasked with recording every single word mentioned in the room.
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“At the time they were saying, ‘Friends is an adult-themed show and it's very private what goes on in this room,’ but now Friends is looped on Nickelodeon. That’s an adult-themed show?”
Lyle said she believes she was fired for suggesting Friends character Joey (Matt LeBlanc) should have a Black love interest to increase diversity on the show and speaking to her superior about a racist joke made by another producer.
It was after these incidents, according to Lyle, that she was told by producers she needed to improve her typing speed, which came as a surprise because she said for many of the writers on staff, she was their favorite assistant.
“All of the writers’ assistants were good, but I was the one who took the most copious notes,” she said. “The reason for termination was slow typing speed, but you can't do that when I'm the only woman of color on staff and don't have any concrete proof that I wasn't doing my job.”
When she went to 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, ‘Can I know what happened? Or can I see any sort of documents? Can I talk to the producers?’ I wasn't allowed to talk to the producers, I was discouraged [by producers] from even going to HR. At the time, there were no avenues, there was no HR advocacy, there was no person to represent you if you felt something was wrong, if you needed some sort of mitigation,” Lyle said. “I knew at the time that there were serious deficiencies in Warner Bros. hiring, firing, and human resources systems, I knew that there were serious shortcomings and that this was a David and Goliath situation.”
She initially sued for racial discrimination and wrongful termination, but after talking to her lawyer about the sexual remarks and comments in the writers room, Lyle also sued for sexual harassment.
“I had normalized it so much where I was like, ‘Wait, this isn't just a normal thing?’” she said. “I was that steeped in it that I was like, ‘Wait, this is not just a thing? This is what people do, right?’ And my lawyer was like, ‘Hell no, this is not what people are supposed to do.’”
But Lyle wasn’t just up against one of the biggest and most powerful studios in Hollywood. The entertainment industry rallied together to sign a brief in defense of Warner Bros. and the environment in the Friends writers room, arguing a Supreme Court decision in favor of Lyle would “cast a severe chill on the creative process.” The brief was filed by the Writers Guild of America and supported by the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, and more than 130 prominent 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 return BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment.
“It's a shocking list of people who claim to be ‘woke’ and for the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, but they're all on this list,” Lyle said. “It’s just insane that people are not even saying, ‘Hey, I had a change of heart’ or ‘My mindset is different and things are different now.’”
After getting fired from Friends, Lyle went on to work on a couple smaller projects before leaving the entertainment industry for good, joining the Air Force and working in written communications for the Pentagon. She didn’t have much of a choice, because according to Lyle, “back in the ’90s and the early 2000s, if you said anything, you were pretty much blackballed.”
“I wanted that job so badly, a million writers would have killed to be in the seat that I was in on Friends,” Lyle said. “I know that. But at what cost is that seat?”
While she said she doesn’t have any ill will toward the Friends franchise or the stars of the show, she wishes Warner Bros. would stop using the case as a precedent to intimidate other employees out of reporting incidents of sexual harassment. More than a dozen former employees have told BuzzFeed News that the Lyle case has been cited in sexual harassment training, adding that the message was clear: Reporting a colleague or superior for making sexual remarks or comments that might make employees feel uncomfortable is no easy task.
“They have perverted this case into something as a bullying, sort of scare tactic in a very mafioso kind of way to mute employees and not foster an open, transparent work environment,” Lyle said. “At some point, they're going to have to take accountability and realize that they are propelling the systemic issues that keep these problems alive and give them bandwidth and oxygen. They're the ones doing this.”
At a time when employees are trying to hold Hollywood executives more accountable than ever before, Lyle is hopeful for change, but that heightened awareness of harassment and abusive working conditions isn’t enough. The real change, she said, comes from action.
“I tried to sue [Warner Bros.] and have them be accountable. I lost and I was ready to move on and let it go and let things evolve as it will, but [decades later] Hollywood imploded on itself, and that had very little to do with me or my case. There were a lot of highly visible people, A-list actresses who were now talking about being victims, and people cared more. They didn't care when it was just some anonymous girl living in Hollywood,” Lyle said. “We've got all of the optics without actually changing things organically, and systemically, we are not going to move the ball down the field. You cannot have campaigns such as #MeToo and Time's Up if you're still scaring the shit out of people with my case.”