As we mark the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement, a one-two punch of new laws empower survivors to speak out and tell their stories.
Last week, President Joe Biden signed the Speak Out Act into law. With a stroke of a pen, he gave millions of Americans their voices back and restored the rights of many survivors of workplace sexual assault and harassment.
Here’s why it’s so important: In tandem with the Ending Forced Arbitration for Sexual Assault and Harassment Act that Biden signed earlier this year, the Speak Out Act is aimed at stopping sexual abuse and holding abusers accountable.
Previously, federal law and most state laws allowed employers and others to force non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) into employment and consumer contracts, ultimately silencing survivors of sexual assault and harassment. This meant that when you signed a standard employment contract, or agreed to the “terms and conditions” to download an app, you were potentially signing away your rights to tell your story about a future sexual assault or harassment incident without even realizing it.
One-third of our workforce is subject to these so-called “forced NDAs.” And once the contract is signed, businesses can then cover up their dirty little secrets of sexual abuse, forcing survivors to bear their trauma in silence and allowing predators to continue to harass colleagues and consumers without any real consequence.
So, it’s not bad enough that a survivor is humiliated, emotionally scarred or physically hurt, or that because of the abuse they quit their job, turned down a promotion, or left their field entirely. But if they were forced to sign an NDA before a dispute arises, they must suffer in silence, unable able to tell a spouse, parent or co-worker. And if they do, they can be fired, disciplined or sued for damages and attorney fees.
It’s crazy and unjust.
Once the contract is signed, businesses can cover up their dirty little secrets of sexual abuse, forcing survivors to bear their trauma in silence and allowing predators to continue to harass colleagues and consumers.
Forced NDAs punish the survivor and protect the perpetrator, who is then free to abuse others again and again.
Last week, we held abusers accountable and changed the culture of hiding sexual abuse. Employers who would sweep these stories under the rug will now have real incentive to address toxic workplaces and put safeguards in place to help prevent sexual harassment and assault before it occurs. This should lead to safer and more productive workplaces and civic society for employers, employees and consumers. And change couldn’t come soon enough.
It’s not just the movie and TV personalities who have been victims: One in three women—disproportionately women of color—have suffered sexual harassment or assault in the workplace.
That’s millions of women.
Hotel maids, farm workers, secretaries, CEOs—people in all walks of life have been inappropriately touched, raped or harassed by supervisors, coworkers, customers and service providers. The Speak Out Act makes these NDAs that force survivors of workplace sexual assault and harassment into silence, unenforceable.
And with tens of millions of workers and consumers standing to benefit from this new law, this is a big deal.
So how did we get here? The answer lies in the dedication and perseverance of advocates like Turana Burke, Gretchen Carlson and Julie Roginsky, whose bravery in speaking out about their abuse helped the #MeToo movement go viral. They inspired people all over the world to share heartbreaking stories and oust powerful men who had spent years, or sometimes decades, abusing their staff as the rest of society ignored what was happening right under their noses.
We mark the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement with the passage of the two most significant bipartisan pieces of labor and women’s rights legislation this century—which reinstate legal rights for survivors and burn the laws that protected abusers to the ground.
Coupled together, the Speak Out Act and Ending Forced Arbitration for Sexual Assault and Harassment Act are a one-two punch of new laws that will help survivors tell their stories.
Most people have no idea that an arbitration clause may be hidden in those long pages of dense legalese, or that it means giving up their constitutional right to sue in court or tell their case to a jury.
The Speak Out Act addresses NDAs, while the Ending Forced Arbitration for Sexual Assault and Harassment Act expands the rights of survivors to seek justice. Forced arbitration clauses are legal agreements often included in boilerplate contract language. They state that if one party wants to bring a claim of wrongdoing against the other party, they must go through a secretive closed-door arbitration proceeding and may not file suit in a court of law.
Like NDAs, these clauses are secreted away in employment paperwork and other common legal agreements. Most people have no idea that an arbitration clause may be hidden in those long pages of dense legalese, or that it means giving up their constitutional right to sue in court or tell their case to a jury. Arbiters are often chosen by the corporation that drafted the agreement and are not required to follow legal precedent. The results of the case will not be public. If the outcome is unfair, there is no option to appeal.
When the Ending Forced Arbitration for Sexual Assault and Harassment Act became law, it was a huge step forward for sexual assault and harassment survivors, restoring their right to pursue their best legal path. Now, with the signing of the Speak Out Act, we’ve removed another obstacle for survivors, making it even harder for employers to cover up workplace harassment and assault.
Together, these two laws will bring light to the shadows where predators hide and dismantle a system that depends on silence in order to let tens of millions of survivors share their stories.
And trust us when we say, these stories are powerful. They launched the #MeToo movement, brought down titans of industry, and now have inspired systemic legal change. And it will be survivors’ stories that will continue to guide us down the path toward progress.
This year, we honor those survivors with the signing of these historic laws.
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