This op-ed by Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) first appeared in the Washington Examiner on July 1, 2019.
The #MeToo movement shined a light on sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination in Hollywood, the halls of Congress, workplaces, and college campuses. The movement has empowered countless survivors and provided opportunities for them to hold perpetrators accountable. But more must be done.
That is why we introduced the bipartisan Stop Silencing Victims Act. Currently, many victims who wish to speak out about their experiences are legally prohibited by nondisclosure agreements signed following a settlement. The Stop Silencing Victims Act will eliminate that legal barrier, putting an end to the systematic concealment of public sector sexual harassment.
Non-disclosure agreements, also known as NDAs, are confidentiality agreements that are useful in many business settings to protect highly sensitive information or trade secrets. NDAs should not be used to prevent sexual assault victims from exposing their abusers, yet that’s exactly how they’re being used in the public sector.
Often, victims of public sector workplace sexual harassment choose to settle out of court. When they do, they are frequently forced to sign NDAs, which prevent an employer from disclosing the victim’s personal information, but also prohibit victims from speaking out. The victims lose their voices. The harassers receive anonymity.
Our legislation is simple. If a public sector employee settles a sexual harassment lawsuit with public money, then the victim may not be prohibited from speaking out by an NDA. However, the victim’s confidential information will still be protected by the NDA if she or he decides to keep the details private. In short, our bill gives power to survivors, offering them the choice to speak out or remain silent — it’s up to them. We are proud that our Stop Silencing Victims Act has the support of RAINN, the largest nonprofit anti-sexual violence organization in the United States.
For decades, politicians on Capitol Hill, at state capitals, and other career bureaucrats across the nation have hidden behind the secrecy of NDAs after accusations of harassment. Because these settlements are frequently funded by taxpayer money, the current practice is tantamount to hardworking taxpayers paying hush money on behalf of their elected leaders and civil servant officials.
In Louisiana, taxpayers paid $5 million in legal expenses connected to 84 lawsuits settled between 2010 and 2017 that involved sexual harassment claims against a multitude of public employees. In Arizona, the state’s Department of Administration paid nearly $2 million to settle 24 sexual harassment claims from 2007 to 2016 with taxpayer dollars. A 2018 report from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board found that one in five female employees of large federal government agencies said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous two years. Overall, 14% of the survey respondents, men and women, said they had experienced sexual harassment in the previous two years.
As government officials, we must set the highest standard for condemning workplace sexual harassment. We were elected to serve the people, and the people aren’t served when sexual abusers who work for the public are permitted to hide their transgressions from the public.
The bottom line is simple. We need to stop allowing abusers and harassers to silence their victims with NDAs. We need to shift power to the survivors to come forward with their experiences if they choose to.
By silencing survivors’ stories, these NDAs have contributed to repeat offenses and shielded abusers from additional scrutiny; our legislation will combat repeat offenses and reduce first-time offenses by illuminating the crimes. Survivors deserve a voice, and voters deserve the truth. The Stop Silencing Victims Act is a critical first step.