Is Congress Silencing Interns Who Have Been Sexually Harassed or Abused?
An anonymous former congressional intern told Vox that a confidentiality clause in her nondisclosure agreement might have contributed to her remaining silent about harassment by a superior when she was just 21 years old.
The Vox report highlighted a particular item in interns’ nondisclosure agreements on Capitol Hill, saying it could create a culture of silence over workplace abuse. The report analyzed two NDAs from both Democratic House and Senate offices, and sought the insight from employment lawyers who said that while much of the content in the NDAs was standard, one stipulation stood out for its potential silencing of complaints against harassment and abuse.
The text in the NDA says that interns will have access to "information designated as confidential or secret by the government, matters involving the personal or professional lives of the Senator or employees of the Office, information about the personal lives of constituents" but that they are not allowed to disclose the material as it would be a "breach" of their duties as congressional interns.
The vague nature of this item may cause inexperienced, young and unpaid interns to keep from speaking up about a variety of racial and sexual harassment or discrimination within their offices, according to legal experts. An employment lawyer, Alexis Ronickher of Washington D.C.'s Katz, Marshall, and Banks firm, told Vox about the possible harmful interpretation an intern could make of this text.
"[Interns] are going to read it and think, 'I can't say anything to anyone or I'm going to be sued,'" Ronickher said.
Support for this particular NDA on Capitol Hill emanates from both Democrat and Republican politicians. Even the office of New York’s Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—who recently supported an anti-sexual harassment act called the ME TOO Congress Act—mandates that interns sign and comply with NDAs.
Nondisclosure agreements are often fraught with nebulous terms and clauses that aren’t adequately explained to the people signing these jargon-laden documents. It’s such a pervasive problem that Forbes offered legal advice on navigating the tricky terrain of NDAs for people wishing to highlight abuse. In the case of the intern NDAs on Capitol Hill, the issue carries deep cultural repercussions. Obscure language could lead young congressional interns into thinking there's no tangible difference between sharing confidential policy records and outing a serial predator.