If you’ve ever been fired/terminated/laid off, you may have faced this scenario: As you head for the door, your employer reassures you that not all is lost — you’ve got a severance package coming. All you have to do to get it is sign an agreement. The document often sets as a condition for your goodbye payment a promise that you won’t say anything bad about the company when you leave. Most people, I’ve got a feeling, think about the bills they have to pay, swallow their scruples about giving up the right to speak their mind, and sign on the dotted line.
Most people, but not all. Writer Will Blythe, recently put out of his job at San Francisco digital publisher Byliner, faced just that decision. In a piece published Friday on The New York Times’ op-ed page (“Fired? Speak No Evil“), Blythe described a document he was asked to sign. It’s mostly standard-issue termination stuff, until he gets to clause No. 12, described in the editorial:
“You agree,” it reads, “that you will never make any negative or disparaging statements (orally or in writing) about the Company or its stockholders, directors, officers, employees, products, services or business practices, except as required by law.” If I don’t agree to this nondisparagement clause, I will not receive my severance — in this case, the equivalent of two weeks of pay. Two weeks? Must be hard times out in San Francisco, or otherwise why the dirt parachute — and by the way, is that the sort of remark I won’t be allowed to make if I sign clause No. 12? …
… As quaint as this may seem, giving up the right to speak and write freely, even if that means speaking or writing negatively, strikes me as the unholiest of deals for a writer and an editor to accept. Though such clauses don’t technically violate the First Amendment — I’d be explicitly agreeing to forfeit my right to speak freely if I signed clause No. 12 — such a contract has a paralyzing effect on the dissemination of the truth, with all of truth’s caustically cleansing powers. To disparage is but one tool in a writer’s kit, but it’s an essential one. That a company would offer money for my silence, which is what this boils down to — well, I’ve seen many a mob movie about exactly that exchange.
Here’s the link again: Will Blythe, The New York Times: “Fired? Speak No Evil“