Last week, longtime Fox News anchor and host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, alleging that he sexually harassed her in the workplace. Within a day, Ailes and his lawyers asked a court to force the case into arbitration, under a special gag order that would block anyone from publicly disclosing any of the evidence in the case or the outcome of the arbitration.
The lawsuit alleges that Ailes sabotaged Carlson’s career after she “refused his sexual advances and complained about severe and pervasive sexual harassment.” Her complaint, which can be found here, alleges that her time at Fox News was riddled with Ailes’s inappropriate references to his own sexual history and marital issues and juxtaposed with a vocal interest in Carlson as a sexual partner. Ms. Carlson further alleges that Ailes used his power against her when she denied his advances, taking several steps that culminated in her being dismissed.
According to Fox News and Ailes, none of this is true. But instead of welcoming the chance to vindicate themselves in court, they want to the move the case to an secret arbitrator.
Just Like Charlie? Just after the news came out that Charlie Sheen was HIV positive, and he publicly admitted having unprotected sex with at least a couple of partners after his diagnosis, another revelation was widely reported: he’d been requiring visitors to his home to sign arbitration clauses with confidentiality provisions. And Sheen admitted on TV that he had paid “millions” to settle claims relating to his HIV status.
These revelations created a very serious possibility: that the secrecy of his arbitration clause made it possible for him to engage in risky behavior, then pay off injured women in secret proceedings, and then repeat the whole thing. When you look at the contracts guests to his home were required to sign it’s sort of bizarre, but the upshot of the arbitration ploy was pretty much the same as it is in the Roger Ailes case: it’s a way for a powerful man to impose a shroud of secrecy over allegations of serious mistreatment of women.
And these are not the only two cases involving this kind of allegation. Today’s New York Times reports how Ailes’ effort to force Ms. Carlson into arbitration is reminiscent of the actions of the infamous former head of American Apparel, Dov Charney, who was able to force a number of cases involving allegations of sexual harassment into secret arbitration.
Secrecy as the Driving Force. From the perspective of an employee, there’s a lot not to like about being forced to sign an arbitration clause as a condition of keeping your job, or applying for a job. For one thing, as the Washington Post reported, a substantial scholarly study of many thousands of arbitration cases (and a comparable pool of court cases) discovered that workers are less likely to win cases in arbitration than they would be in court, and that when workers do recover some kind of award in arbitration, that their recoveries tend to be pretty dramatically lower than they would have been in court.
But in the Ailes case, there’s something else afoot as well. While arbitration is always far more shadowy than the public court system (it’s generally incredibly hard for a journalist or member of the public to get copies of pleadings or evidence put before an arbitrator, for example, unless one of the parties to the case send the materials to them; arbitrators often don’t issue public opinions; etc.), the Fox News arbitration clause has a specific and broadly written gag order that goes far beyond the typical arbitration clause.
And in Ailes’ pleadings in a New Jersey federal court, trying to force the case into arbitration, he and his lawyers specifically complain that Ms. Carlson’s allegations have become a matter of widespread public discussion. The conclusion of Mr. Ailes’ brief stresses that arbitration is necessary to make sure that the case cannot “sully his reputation in public,” apparently without respect to whether the actual facts would justify harm to his reputation. The point is not a search for the truth and exoneration; it’s to shut Ms. Carlson up.
Hypocrisy About Transparency: As a news organization, Fox has repeatedly called for transparency with respect to all sorts of allegations against important public figures. For example, Fox is very jacked up to try to break up an alleged “cover up” with respect to Secretary Clinton’s emails. And Fox was extremely interested in trying to make sure that every fact came out about allegations of problems at the World Bank.
But when it comes to allegations that relate to their own chairman, they seem to be awfully keen on making sure that the evidence of the case – in moving it to arbitration – be kept secret from the public. If the case proceeded in the public court system, by contrast, then the actual truth – whether it’s good for Ailes and Fox or not – would come out.
So What Happens Now? It turns out, as the New York Times explained in some detail, that there’s a good chance that Ailes’ strategy won’t work. Ms. Carlson has a number of good arguments against the enforcement of the arbitration clause, perhaps most notably that Mr. Ailes is not a party to the arbitration clause or named in it.
But if Ailes does succeed, then not only is Ms. Carlson less likely to win her case, but the American public and women in the workplace will be the losers. Because once again, a powerful man accused of mistreating women in the workplace will have been able to sweep all of the facts about the dispute under the big rug of forced arbitration. It’s easy to see why every significant civil rights organization or group that advocates for workers strongly opposes the use of forced arbitration in the work place, and they all keep urging the Congress to ban these clauses.
This piece was co-written with Kenda Tucker, Communications Intern at Public Justice and appears in OregonPEN with kind permission of the author.