In my Northeastern law class yesterday, we talked about the law that protects individuals who complain about employment discrimination from retaliation. Over the past few years, the Supreme Court’s decisions have underscored the broad scope of this protection. Recently, the Court held that a person who loses their job in retaliation for his fiancée’s complaint can sue (on his own behalf) for retaliation. Said differently, the law protects people caught in the crossfire from actions designed to harm someone who steps forward to report misconduct. However you look at it, it’s an aggressive rule designed to make clear that people who come forward and complain can do so in relative safety. We have no such protections in public life.
Saying that a bad thing has happened is an act of bravery. Yesterday, Katherine Gonzalez, the ex-girlfriend of Rep. Carlos Henriquez, met with reporters and shared her story. She described a fight over a phone, a struggle, and the bruises the disappointed State Rep. allegedly left behind. Her act of speaking out, of facing reporters and sharing her story, is an act of bravery. There is no anti-retaliation law that will protect her — no rule against character assassination; and no assurance that she will not face ridicule and embarrassment. Nevertheless, just as Rep. Henriquez started to deny the allegations on twitter and elsewhere, she faced the cameras and said her peace.
In so doing, she joins Anita Hill and others who have decided that speaking truth to power is worth the risk. Too often, entrenched forces have prevailed and the women who speak up have found themselves disbelieved or questioned by an institutional preference for preserving the reputations of powerful men. Lost in bookstores is Mimi Alford’s story of her affair (when she was 19 years old) with the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. In her memoir, Once Upon a Secret, Alford details her relationship with the President. Some events resonate months after reading the book — including the President asking her to provide sexual services to one of his aides. Writing that story — speaking that truth (for there have been no denials) — was an act of courage.
In response to the book, which paints a picture of a President whose moral compass was horribly askew, the institutional forces of power painted Alford as a profit-seeker, criticized the writing of the book (which is unremarkable), and suggested that its details were consistent with the already established historic understanding of President Kennedy. Somehow, the notion of the young president pimping his mistress is supposed to not change how we see him. At least so far, the response has trumped the story and the Kennedy myth seems impervious to truth.
A powerful person’s ability to squelch a weaker truth teller is the reason for the vigor of the laws against retaliation we discussed in class yesterday evening. In the unchecked world of public life, people who step forward to report their victimization often suffer even more. The law provides meaningful avenues to counterattack against vengeance in the workplace. In the public sphere it is tougher sledding. When people step forward into that world, we should pay attention. Consider Katherine Gonzalez’s courage and be grateful for it. We should hold her and the women she follows, including Anita Hill and Mimi Alford, in high regard. The truth matters. The courage to speak it, notwithstanding the possible reprisals, is both rare and remarkable.