IT’S POSSIBLE to imagine a dispute so rancorous that it could only be settled if both parties agreed to a gag order — otherwise, they’d tie up the courts to satisfy their pride alone. This happens relatively often in the business world, but it doesn’t have much place in government. When taxpayer money is spent, the presumption should be that taxpayers have a right to know why. And public officials should adhere to higher standards than private-sector counterparts; they shouldn’t be able to sweep away transgressions by ponying up government money and slapping a gag order on complainants.
Yet state officials now use gag orders routinely, according to a recent review of severance records by the Globe’s Todd Wallack. These orders flagrantly defy a warning from the attorney general’s office that state agencies shouldn’t approve gag orders except in special circumstances. It makes sense to include a few exceptions, such as when an employee’s privacy would be violated in a way that could create grounds for further legal action. There’s nothing wrong with the attorney general’s policy, except that it’s not being followed — even by the attorney general’s office, which approved two gag orders of its own. If agencies don’t stop rubber-stamping gag orders, the Legislature should step in and ban the practice, even at the risk of sending more disputes into the courts.
The cases reviewed by Wallack included allegations of harassment by supervisors and taunting by co-workers of a colleague they believed was gay. Then there were gag orders that seemed merely precautionary. The MBTA, in one case, signed a $61,000 severance deal that bars a former employee from saying anything — either verbally or in writing — that “criticizes the MBTA, its business, its management, or any of its officers, directors, partners, or employees.’’
Meanwhile, at the University of Massachusetts, officials coupled severance packages for laid-off employees with gag orders — to the point of refusing to give any money to an employee who didn’t agree to the conditions.
One can only wonder who’s being protected in these deals. It’s not the employees or the taxpayers, who are footing the bill. It may not even be the officials in charge. Gag orders, it seems, are such a common way of doing business in Massachusetts that officials don’t feel comfortable operating without them. Secrecy becomes a mindless reflex. It’s time to let the public know what’s behind these deals, and how its money is being spent.