A Friends Lawsuit Set Back #MeToo By Years — Now The Woman At The Center Of It Speaks Out

by Kelsey Miller
Warner Bros. Television

Odds are, you’ve never heard of Amaani Lyle. She isn’t a public figure, and though her name has surfaced in the press once or twice this past year, it has been largely obscured by many other, more recognizable ones: Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Rose McGowan — the ever-lengthening list of Hollywood actresses who have stepped forward to decry the age-old culture of sexual misconduct, harassment, and alienation in their industry, spreading the message first started by Tarana Burke in 2006: #MeToo. Without a doubt, these women have sparked a tremendous reckoning, and must be recognized for their courage. But it must be noted, too, that years before this public reckoning, Amaani Lyle tried to fight it herself — and she didn’t have a movement on her side. Indeed, when Lyle took the most popular show on television to court in 2002, the entire entertainment industry rose up against her. And when, after six years, her case was shut down by none other than the California Supreme Court, it was called a great victory — a win for free speech. Hollywood leaders cheered the end of the infamous Friends harassment lawsuit, then closed their doors and carried on.

Though this case has largely been forgotten by those outside the entertainment world, it lives on in our courtrooms, our HR materials, and the very laws we all rely on to protect our rights and safety. Some argue that this ruling kept the First Amendment safe — and perhaps it did. But without a doubt, it stripped the meager layer of protection from those who needed it most. For those who beg the question: Why didn't #MeToo happen sooner? This case is part of the answer.

In June 1999, Lyle was hired as a writers’ assistant on the sixth season of Friends. She was interviewed by Adam Chase and Gregory Malins, who served as both writers and executive producers on the series. Lyle’s primary job in the writers’ room was to take fast, copious notes as the writing team brainstormed, typing up a detailed record of the discussion — jokes, anecdotes, anything the writers said that might lead to a story. Chase and Malins told her in the interview that, the conversation could sometimes get a bit “lowbrow.” Sure, that was to be expected. Lyle had worked on other series, and she knew how the process worked. Writers often sat around spitballing and sharpening stories until the wee hours of the morning; this wasn’t a buttoned-up office gig, but a creative workplace. She got it.

Though this case has largely been forgotten by those outside the entertainment world, it lives on in our courtrooms, our HR materials, and the very laws we all rely on to protect our rights and safety.

When she started the job, however, Lyle realized that “lowbrow” didn’t quite cut it. As she would later claim in legal declarations, Lyle’s supervisors (Chase, Malins, and another writer/producer, Andrew Reich) frequently made such graphic sexual and racist comments that she was often left “[too] mortified to speak.” As alleged in court documents, the writers would expound on their fetishes and preferences (young cheerleaders with pigtails, blondes, “a woman with big tits who could give a good blow job”). They shared stories from their own sex lives, sparing no details (Lyle recounted one in which Malins allegedly described a woman gagging on his penis so severely that he thought she might “throw up on his dick”). These stories didn’t just arise once in a while, Lyle claimed. According to her, it was constant.

Lyle understood, of course, that personal anecdotes do often lead to fictional stories, even if the path is indirect. But so often it seemed these guys were just bragging to each other, or talking shit about women, because they could. To Lyle, they acted more like boys in “a junior high locker room,” talking about “twats” and “cunts,” bringing in a pornographic coloring book, pretending to masturbate under the table, or changing the word “Friends” to “penis” on scripts. Even when talking about the show, the conversation sometimes veered way off course. Lyle claimed all three of her supervisors regularly talked about making the character of Joey Tribbiani a serial rapist and ideated scenes where he assaulted the female characters. (Lyle testified that Malins frequently fantasized about writing a scene in which Joey sneaks up on Rachel in the shower and rapes her.) Sometimes, Lyle stated, the writers turned their discussion toward the cast. She alleged they speculated about one actress's reported fertility struggles — referring to the "dried branches in her vagina." According to Lyle, Chase claimed on more than one occasion (either to the group or to Lyle directly) that he could have had sex with one of the actresses on set. Anal sex, specifically. “Not like she asked me to bang her in the ass,” Lyle’s boss told her, according to court documents.

In moments like this, nobody batted an eyelash, Lyle tells me in one of the few interviews she’s given since the case. This kind of behavior, “was so ingrained and ubiquitous at the time that nobody thought about it. The female writers would say something, and [the male writers] would huff and puff and get mad, and then we would just move on,” she says. Only when she left for the day (often in the middle of the night), did reality sink in. “I would be swerving home — driving at 3am — because I’m so tired, because I’ve been there for 15 hours, because those guys have been pretending to masturbate for two or three hours, wasting our time — then yeah, looking back it’s very obvious that was not a healthy environment to be working in. It’s very obvious.”

Then she’d go back to work the next day, and things would resume. Chase, Malins, and Reich would continue their ribald banter, and say “horrible things” about women on the show, Lyle tells me. Later, they would argue this was just normal “writer-actor rivalry” that happened in writers’ rooms. “No, it’s not,” Lyle said. “No, it’s not normal. It’s not normal to say these things about people, in the interest of trying to come up with a story idea. It’s completely disrespectful.”

“Looking back it’s very obvious that was not a healthy environment to be working in. It’s very obvious.”

To Lyle, this seemed plainly unacceptable, and yet it was business as usual. The only unusual element in that room, in fact, was her. “The odds of me — a little black girl coming out of Inglewood, California, ending up on probably one of the most well-known sitcoms in the history of television — the odds of me being there at that writers’ table with them are infinitesimally small,” she tells me. Thus, Lyle says she felt exceptional pressure to keep quiet and not make a fuss. “At the time, you just did what you had to do, to stay relevant, stay in the room, stay employed,” she says. “It was sort of a shut-up-and-color thing.”

According to court documents, Lyle did speak up about the well-documented lack of diversity on Friends, suggesting to Chase and Malins that they include a black character — maybe a love interest, or even just some black extras. She brought it up a lot, in fact, and her bosses seemed to agree it was a good idea, though they never seemed to do anything about it. (Nor was anyone in a rush to do something about her computer, which, according to Lyle, wasn’t hooked up to the company’s network, making it virtually impossible for her to do her job properly. The other two writers’ assistants — both white males — had networked computers, but for some reason, it took a month-and-a-half before Lyle’s was connected.) She noticed as well that her bosses enjoyed mocking “black ghetto talk” and referred to black people as “homies.” They told racist jokes, Lyle claimed, including one involving a black woman and a tampon, which Reich told while looking directly at her.

Again, Lyle kept her head down. As she reminded me, this was 1999. “Nowadays, there are outreach programs to find minority writers, and to find female writers,” she says. “And before, it was a longshot. You were shooting from half-court [trying] to even get your foot in the door.”

She’d done it, and she wasn’t going to throw away the chance at making history. “I had been there all of, what? Four months? I was the only face of color in the room. I would have been the only black female in the history of that show to ever have a creative credit — ever,” she tells me. “If I had stayed on.”

In October 1999, Lyle was suddenly fired. The reason given by her supervisors, as noted in court documents, was poor job performance: She typed too slowly. It came as a shock to Lyle because, until then, she had been under the impression she was doing well. Some of the writers had told her she was their best assistant. She had been urged to pick up the pace, but hadn’t been critiqued any more than the other assistants (and even with the computer issues, she believed her work was on par). Indeed, she’d been told more than once that she was doing a good job. It wasn’t until the termination meeting that things began to click. In it, she was allegedly told not to “cause any problems” during her exit interview with HR, or else she’d be barred from working for Warner Bros. ever again. But Lyle did make a complaint to HR (one which was allegedly never investigated), believing now that she’d been fired because she was black and a woman and had spoken up. Now classified as ineligible for rehire, she decided to speak up again.

“I was the only face of color in the room. I would have been the only black female in the history of that show to ever have a creative credit — ever,” she tells me. “If I had stayed on.”

What followed was a six-year-long legal battle that changed the very concept of harassment in this country. It had — still has — a great impact not only in the entertainment industry but virtually every workplace, and beyond. In December 1999, less than two months after her termination, Lyle filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging racial and sexual harassment and discrimination, and claiming she’d been fired as retaliation for pressing the issue of diversity on Friends. Though an LA County judge initially dismissed the case (on the basis that Lyle failed to produce sufficient evidence), an appeals court partially reinstated it — specifically, they reinstated the harassment claims. Lyle’s case was unusual, in that Chase, Malins, and Reich’s alleged behavior was not directed at her. They never called her a cunt or pretended to jerk off on her. But she was, by the nature of her job, a captive audience.

The defendants’ argument, though, was even more unusual. In fact, the judges noted, “[it] appears to be unique in the annals of sexual harassment litigation.” This is what came to be known as the “creative necessity” defense.

Chase, Malins, and Reich confirmed that portions of Lyle’s claims were true. But they were not guilty of any impropriety — certainly not harassment. They were professional writers doing their job. Yes, the language was vulgar and demeaning. Yes, there were blow-job stories and occasional masturbatory “gestures.” Yes, one or more of them sometimes doodled over words — changing “persistence” to “pert tits,” for example. All this was, they argued, were necessary parts of the creative process.

It’s worth noting that this kind of behavior likely took place to some degree in every writers’ room. Yet it’s easy to see why harassment cases like this were so rare. The Writers Guild of America reported that in 1999, the year Lyle was hired on Friends, more than 75% of television employees were male (and 93% of them were white). Furthermore, sexual harassment was simply not a popular cause. It was popular to joke about, clutching one’s imaginary pearls and quoting the much-mocked PSAs that aired throughout ’90s: “That’s sexual harassment — and I don’t have to take it.” (You can find a montage of those “Hilarious Sexual Harassment Commercials” on YouTube.) But the typical response to sexual harassment claimants was that they were prudes or hysterics making a fuss over nothing — or else they were making the whole thing up, for money or attention or because they were mad. Even if it was true, it wasn’t like they were raped, right? Of course, there were outliers, like activist Tarana Burke, who took harassment seriously. But to the general public, stories like Lyle’s just weren’t that big a deal. Certainly not as big a deal as Friends.

(Not that the general public heard much about it. Though Friends was constantly in the press, coverage of this case was curiously scant. The outlets that did mention it seemed to reflect public opinion, citing “delicate ears” and describing Lyle as “offended” by the “off-color banter” in the writers’ room.)

Even if it was true, it wasn’t like they were raped, right? Of course, there were outliers, like activist Tarana Burke, who took harassment seriously.

To those in the television business, Lyle’s case was not merely frivolous, but it was an outrage. It was a threat to the entire industry, and to all Americans. Warner Bros. fought Lyle’s appeal, and soon the case was put before the California Supreme Court. Then, Hollywood rose up en masse to support the writers and denounce Lyle. The WGA filed an amicus brief on the defense’s behalf, signed by a laundry list of industry leaders, including: Norman Lear, James L. Brooks, Larry David, Laura Kightlinger, Joel Cohen, Bill Odenkirk, and many more. “Dozens of writers and producers that I admired growing up, that inspired me to get into the business,” says Lyle — including comic/writer-producer Larry Wilmore and Living Single creator Yvette Denise Lee Bowser. The brief argued that “writers must feel not only that it’s all right to fail, but also that they can share their most private and darkest thoughts without concern for ridicule or embarrassment or legal accountability.” This kind of atmosphere was crucial, the writers said (yes, even the dirty doodles). “That’s what it takes to make a great show,” Norman Lear added. “Smart people sitting in a room, going wherever they want.”

Lyle herself recalled the brief as “very well written, but very propagandist.” In no uncertain terms, it said that should Lyle’s case gain traction, it would create “a chilling effect” in Hollywood, blunting creative expression — nay, all exercises of the First Amendment. Leadership from other sectors joined in, too: Book and newspaper publishers, educational advocacy groups, librarians, journalists, civil rights and feminist organizations, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund sent in their own briefs, demanding the court shut down Lyle’s case. Lyle had gone from industry pariah to anti-American villain — “like I had the power to completely deflate the entire industry,” she told me. “It makes you wonder, you know. What would cause that kind of fear-mongering? Unless there was some seedling of truth to something.”

Lyle did have a small group of supporters, primarily from legal scholars. UCLA law professor Russell K. Robinson wrote a brief on Lyle’s behalf, arguing that this creative necessity defense was “a pretext for justifying ordinary sexual harassment, which the First Amendment should afford no protection.” Rather than rail against theoretical censorship, he cited the evidence and established facts — which made it quite clear (to him, and many other legal professionals) that if the court rejected Lyle’s case, it would not protect creative fields. It would simply serve to further exclude people like Lyle from them. “It would eviscerate anti-discrimination law in all ‘creative industries’ and leave women as well as people of color and others without legal protection,” he wrote in the brief.

Lyle’s own lawyer echoed this sentiment when, on April 20, 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the defendants’ favor. While their lawyers crowed over this victory for freedom, Lyle’s attorney Mark Weidmann told the Los Angeles Times: “This sets way back the rights of women to be free from sexual harassment.” Elizabeth Kristen, a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society, added that this ruling could make it harder for all workers to sue over harassment. The court had not simply dismissed Lyle’s case. They had firmly agreed with the creative necessity argument. The writers did have the right to denigrate women and pretend to jerk off (as long as it wasn’t at someone in particular), and that right must be protected. The fact that Lyle was “offended” by what happened in the room was not their fault, one justice added in a written opinion: “Those who choose to join a creative team should not be allowed to complain that some of the creativity was offensive…”

Lyle and her story became a cautionary tale — an infamous example of Hollywood’s willingness to protect its powerful and silence any outliers. Yet the situation seemed to leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouths, including the defendants. In fact, Lyle said, two of them apologized to her, long before the case made headlines. According to Lyle, shortly after she was fired, she was at a birthday party where they were also in attendance. “Greg and Adam came up to me and apologized,” she tells me. Lyle was floored. “If I was this terrible person and this terrible worker, what were they apologizing about?” Looking back, she says, “I think they knew, after the fact, that they went about this the wrong way.”

Lyle and her story became a cautionary tale — an infamous example of Hollywood’s willingness to protect its powerful and silence any outliers.

Lyle had left the industry by the time the ruling came down. She joined the Air Force and now works in communications at the Pentagon. She’s kept out of the public eye, and hadn’t spoken publicly about her case until last year, when the #MeToo movement roared to life. “When the [Weinstein] story broke, I just thought, ‘Well, this is going to be another case of he-said-she-said,’” she tells me. “‘He’s got a lot of money and he’s got a lot of power, so he’s going to prevail, and the women will get shamed.’” Instead, more of them came forward to support each other and share their own stories. “When A-list celebrities started getting involved and taking a stand and giving a voice to these otherwise very muted faction of society, I was like, ‘Wow, this is not going away,’” she says.

Lyle was amazed by both the courageous whistleblowers and those who championed them — many of whom had, not long ago, signed the WGA brief decrying her for speaking up about this issue. “I think now... a lot of them would be very ashamed to see their name on that list,” she tells me, “Particularly the people of color, or the women who are on there.” Lyle cited people like Bowser and Wilmore (who’s been praised for denouncing Bill Cosby and urging his fans to “believe the women” on Twitter). “When I see these people now, that are carrying the torch for this cause, I’m like, ‘Oh really?’ The narrative has really, really changed,” she says. “I don’t see them going, ‘Gee, I once thought this way, but I had this epiphany.’ They’re acting like they were part of this thing all along, and they weren’t. They really didn’t care, beforehand.”

Some of them, she adds, were likely harassed themselves. As a precedent-setting case, Lyle v. Warner Brothers became, as Lyle puts it, “a loophole for a lot of people in the industry to be able to do what they want.” Indeed, Lyle’s case has been referenced in many harassment cases since. It’s proven a very effective defense, providing a clear legal definition of what doesn’t count as harassment or hostility. From a practical perspective, it may have been an equally effective stop-gap measure against the #MeToo movement itself.

I asked Lyle what she thought. She pointed out that there has been meaningful progress made since her case. Employees have more HR support and avenues to file grievances internally. “I don’t want to say I fell on my sword for this. But by me being fired so frivolously, I think it helped give people lower on the food chain a chance to fight for their jobs,” she said. “Back in the day, someone could just decide you’re gone, and you’re gone.”

As a precedent-setting case, Lyle v. Warner Brothers became, as Lyle puts it, “a loophole for a lot of people in the industry to do be able to do what they want.”

As for harassment, Lyle doesn’t believe the industry has changed — only the audience. “For a long time, nobody wanted to see how the sausage was made,” she explains. “The world is watching now. And we’re not only watching the product on the screen or on our phones. We’re watching what goes on behind the scenes now. And whereas the writers’ room used to be this chambered nautilus once upon a time, I think now it’s on display. And it should be on display.

“At the heart of the matter, this isn’t just about harassment. It’s about diversity and inclusion, and all of those things that we didn’t take for granted,” Lyle says. “I would love to say that Hollywood has had this collective epiphany. But I think, no. It’s just — the lights are on now.”

Read more about the history of Friends in I'll Be There For You: The One About Friends by Kelsey Miller, out now.