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Are Your Tax Dollars Helping to Protect Sexual Harassers?

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Even though the #MeToo movement is waning in popularity, the issue of sexual harassment remains a serious issue. The conversation over sexual misbehavior, particularly in the workplace, rose to national prominence last month, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace over a slew of allegations that he acted inappropriately with various females he encountered.

But it appears there are several important dimensions to the issue of sexual harassment, and since these are typically overlooked by media, they do not get the attention they deserve. The Boston Globe published a piece in which they spoke with former Fox News journalists Gretchen Carlson and Julie Roginsky about their effort to prevent governments and private entities protect sexual abusers. The author of the piece noted that Cuomo was held accountable for his sexual impropriety “because his accusers were free to speak out against him.”

Carlson rose to prominence as part of the #MeToo movement when she publicly accused now-deceased Fox News chief Roger Ailes of sexually harassing her. She is set to testify at a virtual legislative hearing on Tuesday to support a bill filed by Massachusetts state Senator Diana DiZoglio, which would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to compel sexual harassment victims to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA).

These NDAs are typically used by corporations or government entities to protect individuals accused of sexual harassment from exposure. It prevents victims from telling their stories publicly under threat of legal action.

During a telephone interview with the author, Carlson said “every incremental step is important.” She continued:

“At a bare minimum, taxpayers should know what their taxpayer dollars are spent on. People are using NDAs [nondisclosure agreements] to cover up workplace toxicity with taxpayer dollars. It is unconscionable.”

Both Carlson and Roginsky signed NDAs as a condition of their settlements with Fox. They later formed an organization called Lift Our Voices, which lobbies at the state and federal levels to “strengthen laws against sexual harassment,” according to the Globe.

“The women who were harassed by Andrew Cuomo were able to come forward publicly because they were not bound by NDAs,” Roginsky pointed out.

Carlson said they wish Massachusetts would enact laws similar to what has been implemented in other states, but so far, this has not happened.

From the Globe:

The Senate passed a previous bill filed by DiZoglio, but the House did not follow up. DiZoglio, who recently announced a run for state auditor, said she’s making one last attempt to change that outcome. Once again, she brings her personal story to the fight.

DiZoglio experienced her own sexual harassment problem when she worked as a House aide. She was later fired, but “a lawyer helped her negotiate a severance agreement with the speaker’s office,” which included an NDA prohibiting her from speaking out about the incident. She later violated the agreement in March 2018, but luckily for her, the House did not enforce the agreement.

DiZoglio told the Globe that it was “unacceptable” that taxpayer dollars are being used to protect individuals who engage in sexual harassment. While the Senate changed its rules to ban NDAs, the House still allows them to be used if the employee requests it.

Under Senate Bill 2047, any governmental entity in Massachusetts would not be allowed to require NDAs or non-disparagement agreements as a condition of employment or a settlement agreement. However, the entity would be allowed to shield the individual’s identity. The legislation is designed to protect the victims of sexual harassment rather than the perpetrators.

The group is not only going after taxpayer-funded NDAs, but they seek to end the practice in the private sector as well. In 2019, Carlson and Roginsky told The Hollywood Reporter they would be asking political and industry leaders to commit to eliminating the use of NDAs for sexual harassment settlements. Roginsky said:

“If there are companies that we feel are abusing their NDA process, to malign women or to protect a toxic work environment, we will build our digital army and we will send out a call to action to boycott their project.”

This is one of those issues that is difficult to parse. On the one hand, the idea that taxpayer funds is going towards protecting politicians who abuse their power is abhorrent. Roginsky was right: If New York City required NDAs, chances are, the allegations against Cuomo would be nothing more than rumor and innuendo. When government officials act out of turn, they should be held accountable.

But on the other hand, I’m not so sure I’d be on board with legislation of this type that would affect private companies. In general, I prefer to let businesses operate in the way they see fit. If a company prefers using NDAs, people can choose not to work there. Of course, in real life, this probably would not work in practice.

Can you imagine a woman sitting in an interview and asking: “By the way, if one of your perverted employees decides to feel me up with his grubby paws, are you going to make me sign an NDA?”

Me neither, which makes me further understand where Carlson and Roginsky are coming from. If victims of sexual harassment are prevented from telling their stories, it could result in the type of silencing that allows certain men to get away with untoward behavior.

(Yes, I know women sexually harass men, too, but we know it’s far more common the other way around).

Film producer Harvey Weinstein got away with harassing and even assaulting women for years because they were too afraid to speak up – and they didn’t even have to sign NDAs. How much worse would it have been if they had?

It might be difficult to get such legislation passed when #MeToo is no longer in the spotlight. But we know how these things go: Give it a few months, and there will be yet another high-profile celebrity or politician who is accused of sexual harassment — and the story will become part of the national conversation. Perhaps then Carlson and Roginsky might get their wish.