LOS ANGELES – Writer Janis Hirsch faced a painful ritual at one sitcom: She'd get a tap on the shoulder from one or another male colleague, turn around and find them exposing themselves.
"You learn to laugh with it even if it steals your soul," she says. Television shows, especially comedies, are created in an often brutal atmosphere. "It's one of the few places on earth where everybody says exactly what's on their minds," says veteran writer Dennis Klein. "It's as dark and nasty as possible."
But if the tradition of the raucous, freewheeling "writers room" is the Hollywood status quo, Amaani Lyle (search) is fighting it. The 31-year-old former writer's assistant for "Friends" (search) has filed a lawsuit that has landed before the California Supreme Court.
Lyle alleges the raw sexual remarks that peppered writers' work sessions and conversations added up to harassment, even though they weren't aimed directly at her or other women in the room.
Her suit, which also alleges demeaning remarks were made about blacks and constitute racial harassment, names "Friends" producers Warner Bros. Television Productions and Bright Kauffman Crane Productions, as well as writers Adam Chase (search),Greg Malins (search) and Andrew Reich (search).
Lyle worked for four months in 1999 before she was told she was a poor typist and fired. But Lyle, who is black, claims she was let go after pressing for black characters on the sexually charged NBC comedy about six pals in New York. It ended a successful 10-year run last season.
Her suit has galvanized the entertainment industry and news organizations, who argue it could imperil professional freedom of speech. Lyle supporters say workplace anti-discrimination laws will be undermined if the defense prevails.
The state Supreme Court will decide whether the lawsuit, dismissed in 2002 by a Superior Court judge and then reinstated in part last April by an appellate court, can go to trial. Briefs are being submitted now and the case may come before the high court next summer.
Warner Bros. admits that some, but not all, of the sexually explicit talk Lyle is alleging did take place, said attorney Adam Levin, who represents the defendants. But that's not the point, he said. The banter was a vital part of the creative process, Levin contends, and Lyle had been warned about sexually explicit discussions.
"California law does not prohibit discussions of sex in the workplace," Levin said. "The law prohibits targeted discriminatory harassment, such as demands for sexual favors."
He flatly denied Lyle's claims that the writers made sexual comments about cast members including Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer and Courteney Cox Arquette.
For writers, professors or news reporters whose jobs might involve discussion of delicate issues including sex, restraints on speech would be a First Amendment violation, he said.
But Lyle's attorney, Scott O. Cummings, contends the graphic discussion of writers' sexual preferences and experiences amounted to a hostile work environment. He said the defendants are trying to duck responsibility by hiding behind free speech protections.
"It's ridiculous to say this had anything to do with the creative process," he said.
Lyle, now serving with the Air Force in Europe, was unavailable for comment.
Both sides have their supporters.
"We shouldn't be exempting certain industries and segments of our workplace from these laws," says Elizabeth Kristen, project director for the Legal Aid Society's Employment Law Center in San Francisco. "If you exempt the studios, other industries might claim that they need to have exemptions from discrimination laws and other laws."
The case raises an important question about the balance of creative freedom and workplace protection, says Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke Law School professor.
"What's important here is that the workplace be open to everybody, that there not be a hostile workplace," he said, and a jury should be allowed to weigh whether the writers' remarks were necessary to storytelling.
But Crispin Sartwell, a writer ("Six Names of Beauty") who teaches at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., says he's inclined to side with the "Friends" scribes and the cause of unfettered expression.
"The show was so concentrated on sexual titillation ... they're practically obliged to explore that," said Sartwell. "They're writing 'Friends,' for God's sake."
Members of the media, including Los Angeles Times Communications LLC and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, filed a friend of the court brief warning of a chilling effect on the exchange of ideas and information for newspapers and others if the suit prevails. The Writers Guild of America, west, Inc., argued in another brief that restrictions on the writing process would muzzle those who create all forms of entertainment.
"Murphy Brown" creator Diane English, "All in the Family" creator Norman Lear and "ER's" John Wells were among 11 prominent TV writers whose names were attached to the guild's filing.
"It's always very hard to describe the process of what writing a comedy series is really about," English said. "It involves so critically the ability to completely be open and let yourself go. It's the only way the really truly funny stuff is born."
"If we all had to watch what we said in the sanctity of the writers' room, I really, really worry about the ability to do our job," she said.
But rooms vary, Hirsch contends. When she worked on "Murphy Brown," the jokes could be blue but the tone was never hostile.
"When there's a woman running the show, it's not tolerated. ... We had big laughs with Diane English around but you wouldn't dare" be vicious, said Hirsch. She finds the same true of "Eve," the UPN show she writes for now and which is headed by a woman.
On sitcoms dominated by men the tone can be angry and anti-female, she said. The choice is suffer a "mean room" or leave, Hirsch said, because suing could damage a career.
So far, writers say they haven't heard calls for restraint because of the lawsuit. But newcomers should be aware they're in for a collegial but intense experience, cautioned Klein, whose credits include "Cosby" and "The Larry Sanders Show."
"It's a very tough atmosphere and if you don't love it it's not going to work for you at all," he said. "And if you're touchy it's awful for you."