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Looking back on the day in July 2016 when she signed her historic $20 million sexual harassment settlement with Fox News, there is one thing Gretchen Carlson says she would do differently.
“I knew my own personal experience, and it was an incredibly lonely, isolated experience,” Carlson says. “I had no idea how pervasive this epidemic [of sexual harassment] was. I had no idea how it had been kept under wraps. Had I known what I know now, when I filed my case, I would have fought harder not to have an NDA.”
Three and a half years later, Carlson is fighting against nondisclosure agreements — her own and anyone else’s — in a new initiative she’s launching with fellow Fox alumna Julie Roginsky.
The duo are creating an organization, Lift Our Voices, devoted to stopping companies from using NDAs to cover up incidents of workplace harassment and discrimination. Carlson and Roginsky say they will be asking industry and political leaders to pledge to eradicate NDAs for these purposes in their workplaces. They also hope to build a base of supporters who will penalize companies that continue to use NDAs to stifle employees’ speech about their working conditions.
“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,” Roginsky says.
Carlson and Roginsky, a Democratic strategist and former Fox contributor who settled a sexual harassment suit with the network in 2017, both asked Fox to release them from their own NDAs in October, as did their fellow former Fox News colleague Diana Falzone, who will serve on the board of Lift Our Voices. The network has yet to respond to the women. (Fox declined to comment.) The trio were inspired to do so, Carlson says, by the news that NBCUniversal will allow its former staffers to be released from their agreements — if they check with the company’s legal department first. “The three of us got on the phone together and said, ‘What about us?’ ” Carlson says.
There is already legislative movement on the issue of the secrecy clauses, which have come under new scrutiny for their use in covering up patterns of abuse at companies like Fox and The Weinstein Co. The model Carlson and Roginsky would like other states to follow is a bill signed into law in New Jersey in March that renders unenforceable any provision in an employment contract or settlement agreement “which has the purpose or effect of concealing the details relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment.” While New Jersey’s law is the most potent, 12 other states, including California and New York, have also passed new laws designed to focus NDAs on the protection of confidential business information rather than on covering up a company’s bad practices.
Workers in Hollywood, Roginsky says, are particularly vulnerable to NDAs being abused, because the agreements are so prevalent in the entertainment industry. “It’s actors, it’s grips, it’s craft service people, who all sign NDAs because they understand they’re promising not to give away details about the script or the production,” Roginsky says. “But these same NDAs are used to hide the fact that people are treated horribly, and their rights are completely eradicated in terms of speaking out. So the next set of people who work with a predator will often not know what they’re walking into.”
Carlson is hoping companies begin dropping or amending their NDAs to signal to prospective employees that they have a healthy workplace culture. “If companies want to be on the right side of history, they will be on our team,” Carlson says. “Because the only way we are going to solve this issue is to have a much more open dialogue and let people speak.”
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek