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OPINION

From Fox News to Beacon Hill — the buying of women’s silence

A bill in the State House would ban nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases.

Photo illustration by globe staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

What do Fox News and the Massachusetts House of Representatives have in common?

A shared history of buying the silence of women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace, according to one state lawmaker.

That unsettling common ground brought together Gretchen Carlson — the former TV anchor who spurred the nationwide #MeToo movement when she took on Fox News chief Roger Ailes — and state Senator Diana DiZoglio — the Methuen Democrat who is taking on House Speaker Robert DeLeo as she pushes for a law to ban nondisclosure agreements that prohibit primarily women from speaking out about their experience.

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Their shared mission showcases the pervasive and nonpartisan nature of sexual harassment. It also highlights the ongoing conflict over how to deal with it. Some advocates argue that nondisclosure agreements — or NDAs — are critical to protecting the identity of victims. However, Carlson made a powerful case for banning them.

“The silence can be suffocating,” she said at a State House press conference Monday with DiZoglio and others, including Representative Alyson Sullivan, a Republican from Abington. “No one should be penalized for having a voice, because buying silence instead of stopping harassment is immoral and unjust. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of women workers in our country. We’ve lost them to harassment across every profession, while predators continue climbing the professional ladder.”

Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes in 2016, alleging she was demoted and fired when she rebuffed his sexual advances. After she went public, more than 20 other women came forward to accuse Ailes of sexual misconduct. He was forced out, with a settlement of about $40 million. She received a $20 million settlement and an apology from 21st Century Fox. But she had to sign a nondisclosure agreement that keeps her from telling her story — leaving that to others, as depicted in the movie “Bombshell.”

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DiZoglio’s story is very different — except for the ending. Back in 2011 — before she was elected to the House and then the Senate — she was working as a House aide when discredited rumors about inappropriate behavior made her the target of gossip and sexual harassment. The Republican lawmaker for whom she worked did not like the whispers, and she was fired. A lawyer helped her negotiate a severance agreement with the speaker’s office that gave her six weeks’ pay, based on a salary of about $30,000. Her agreement, like Carlson’s, also included a requirement that she not talk about what happened to her. In March 2018, she broke the agreement on the floor of the House, and ever since has been trying to end the practice of nondisclosure payments. As she points out, in the public sector, taxpayers are footing the bill.

DeLeo disputes DiZoglio’s account, insisting he was unaware she had been sexually harassed, and thus could not be trying to cover up harassment or silence a woman who endured it. But DiZoglio isn’t backing down. Addressing her fellow legislators at the press conference with Carlson, she said, “Your speaker lied to you and put you in a very bad position, both by unequivocally denying that he has given out NDAs for anything related to sexual harassment, when I have one from his office and my circumstances were widely publicized leading up to my wrongful termination, and also by exploiting victims’ need for confidentiality . . . to allow these agreements to continue to be used by his office and elsewhere in our government.”

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The Senate now forbids nondisclosure agreements among its employees. Under its rules, the House allows such agreements to continue — if requested by the employee. According to DiZoglio, her bill, which is currently before the Judiciary Committee, would do the same. However, Representative Claire Cronin, the House chair of that committee, and Senator James Eldridge, the Senate chair, both insist that, as written, DiZoglio’s bill would not allow victims to request an NDA. She said she would be happy to rework the language and clear up any ambiguity.

DiZoglio said the critiques are nothing more than excuses from those who want nondisclosure agreements to continue. And as long as they do, the powerful in any institution, from media moguls or local legislators, can bully the powerless into buying their silence.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.