By Shira Schoenberg
The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday voted to ban the use of nondisclosure agreements by the state Senate. This represents a clear policy break with the Massachusetts House, which uses the agreements and has explicitly rejected attempts to limit their use.
Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, who proposed the amendment, said banning nondisclosure agreements "sends a clear message to our communities that we are not nor will we be in the business of silencing victims or covering ups misdeeds under any circumstance using public funds."
Nondisclosure agreements are generally signed as part of a settlement or severance package to ban the participants involved in an incident from talking about it publicly.
The use of nondisclosure agreements garnered public attention recently after these agreements were used by high-profile individuals accused of assaulting women, including Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and casino mogul Steve Wynn, to prohibit the alleged victims from speaking out.
Last March, the Massachusetts House updated its policies against sexual harassment in response to the national #metoo movement.
DiZoglio, then a state representative, said on the House floor that she had been required to sign a nondisclosure agreement as a condition of getting severance pay as a House staffer asked to leave her job. She left amid rumors surrounding her entering the House chamber with a lawmaker during a late-night party, although an investigation found she did nothing wrong. DiZoglio blasted the use of nondisclosure agreements and asked House members to ban their use.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said at the time that there have been 33 agreements executed with employees who were terminated from the House. None related to sexual harassment.
House lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected DiZoglio's proposal.
This Wednesday, during a debate on House rules, Rep. Patrick Kearney, D-Scituate, renewed DiZoglio's effort to ban the use of nondisclosure agreements.
"They are tools used by the like of Harvey Weinstein to silence victims," Kearney said, according to a State House News Service transcript. "No victim wants to give up their First Amendment right to share their story with family, friends and their support system or have their severance package hanging in the balance."
But several representatives said nondisclosure agreements can be used by victims to silence their abuser and to quell concerns that an abuser will bad-mouth a victim. They said in the House, a nondisclosure agreement can only be initiated by a victim.
"If a victim wants to make sure their abuser is also silent, this is an important tool," said Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, according to the State House News Service.
Rep. Claire Cronin, D-Easton, said, "I don't think anyone in this chamber wants to take that control and power away from the victim."
The House overwhelmingly rejected the proposed ban, 5-151.
The Senate, in recent years, has not used nondisclosure agreements. In an interview earlier this month, Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said she would not require anyone to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
In the Senate vote Thursday, senators voted unanimously, 39-0, to accept DiZoglio's amendment to the Senate rules to ban the use of nondisclosure agreements.
DiZoglio said nondisclosure agreements have been used to "cover up the misdeeds of powerful, serial harassers and abusers" like Weinstein and Wynn.
"Any use of nondisclosure agreements, which silence victims of assault, harassment or discrimination while protecting powerful perpetrators who may be elected politicians or staff in this Legislature, simply put, is shameful," DiZoglio said.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said Senate Republicans agree with DiZoglio and "think it's important we take a definitive, bold and clear step that these kinds of agreements have no place in the Legislature."
(c)2019 The Republican, Springfield, Mass.