Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Writers and sexual harassment

A month ago I wrote about
a sexual harassment suit filed by a writers' assistant who was offended by the raunchy language and behavior of writers for the Friends TV show.

The plaintiff said, 'They would basically sit like teenagers in a locker room, talking about, you know ... Things they wanted to do to the cast and walking around pretending to masturbate and just ridiculous conduct.'
The case is expected to be heard by the California Supreme Court next year.

For some reason ABC News just published a long story (ABC News: Is Crude Language Part of the Creative Process?) about the case. It adds nothing new, but it is worth reading. Perhaps as a result of the publication of that story, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has now published a short summary of the case: Hollywood writers watch harassment case.

Nothing new has actually happened in the case. What I find interesting is that it is news again just because ABC decided to publish a story on it.

I found out about both of these stories because I created an alert on Google. I want to be informed when the case is actually heard by the California Supreme court. To create an alert, look up something in Google's News service. At the bottom of the page, you will be offered the opportunity to create an alert. Or you can go directly to

The actual story seems to be that the Friends writers were rather juvenile. But would you file a suit saying that the workplace was intolerably offensive if you were an elementary school teacher and your students made toilet jokes?

The original purpose of the sexual harassment laws was to protect mainly women (but men in some cases) from sexual bullies and predators. This case seems to me to be different. The gross sexual language was not directed as the plaintiff.

But what if one were a minority and were working in a work environment in which the other employees regularly used terms based on your ethnicity in a negative way—simply as part of their standard mode of expression?
  • What is one were Jewish and your fellow workers were constantly saying things like, "He Jewed him out of it." meaning that he drove an unfairly hard bargain.
  • Or what if one were black and your fellow workers were constantly using the term nigger as a general term of derision?
That's also at issue here. Apparently some of the writers mimed masturbation as a way of criticizing another writer's ideas. Is that offensive enough to merit a workplace harassment suit? I don't know to what extent one would have a case under those circumstances. I don't know how the workplace speech regulation rules are written.

But offensive as that sort of behavior may be, I'm not enthusiastic about having them written in a way that would allow law suits under those circumstances. Do we really want the government writing rules of etiquette for us?

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