How James Cameron Ran Into Problems Enforcing a Code of Silence at an Elementary School

James Cameron - H - 2014
Associated Press

This week, an administrative judge in San Francisco at the National Labor Relations Board issued a decision in a curious case involving famed film director James Cameron.

The dispute centered on his Muse School, an elementary academy located in Calabasas, California, whose website's mission statement states in part, "We believe absolutely that the freedom to follow one’s own path every day is essential in nurturing fully invested, absorbed, and passionate learners."

Absolute freedom didn't extend to its workers like Trudy Perry, who according to a LinkedIn profile, served as a donor relations manager at Muse. She had to sign a confidentiality agreement that she wouldn't speak about things such as her compensation nor disclose photographs, films or other recordings connected with the Cameron family. Additionally, she agreed not to disparage her employer nor any of kids of celebrities who attended the school.

Perry worked at Muse between 2011 and 2013, and after she resigned, she got a threatening letter from the school's attorney who wrote, "We have received credible information which demonstrates that you have violated the covenants and conditions set forth in the Confidentiality Agreement... The purpose of this letter is to remind you, in no uncertain terms, of your obligations and to seek your immediate cooperation and full compliance with the terms of the Confidentiality Agreement."

Within a week, Perry filed a complaint at the NLRB with a charge of unfair labor practice.

The school responded by arguing that it had a "clear legitimate business purpose" to its confidentiality protocol, that the affairs of Cameron and other celebrity's in the school's community were at stake.

Lisa Thompson, the administrative judge responds, "Respondent does not cite any case law or Board precedent showing how the confidentiality of its founders and celebrity clients trumphs its employees’ right to discuss their wages, hours or other terms and conditions of employment."

The NLRB decision goes on to say that the overbroad confidentiality pact that Muse's workers are told to sign have the effect of chilling protected activity, most particularly the right to speak about wages and employment conditions. Celebrity privacy isn't a trump card, adds the ruling, especially when the confidentiality agreements aren't narrowly tailored to meet legitimate business purposes. The judge even agrees that the non-disparagement provisions went too far. The lawyer's warning letter itself was deemed a violation of labor code.

As a result, the NLRB has ordered Cameron's school to cease and desist from effectuating its confidentiality pact and notifying all current and past employees that it has been rescinded and is now void. After telling its employees that it has violated federal law, it appears that the school won't be stopped from coming up a new confidentiality pact but it can't prohibit employees from discussing their wages, hours or other terms and conditions of employment.

Twitter: @eriqgardner