One thing you can say about Donald Trump is that there is virtually no question he won’t answer, a fact which leads journalists to drag him down all manner of rabbit holes. That attribute was taken advantage of this week by Washington Post reporter Robert Costa. Noting that many of Trump’s employees in his organization are required to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) as part of the hiring process, Costa asked him if he thought that federal employees should be subject to the same sort of gag orders. As usual, Trump pulled no punches. (Government Executive)
To the list of semi-sketched-out changes in government GOP front-runner Donald Trump has proposed, you can add another. All federal employees in a future Trump administration would sign nondisclosure agreements to prevent them from writing unauthorized books, the billionaire real estate developer said in an interview published Saturday in the Washington Post.
Noting Trump’s famous demands for loyalty among his business associates, Post political reporter Robert Costa asked whether Trump is “going to make employees of the federal government sign nondisclosure agreements.”
His reply: “I think they should. You know . . . there could be some kind of a law that you can’t do this. But when people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that. I mean, I’ll be honest. And people would say, oh, that’s terrible, you’re taking away his right to free speech. Well . . . I would say . . . I do have nondisclosure deals…”
I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to NDAs, largely because they come in so many forms and deal with the idea that you can stop people from talking about things. (That just raises the libertarian hackles in a lot of people before we even get started.) But with that said, at least some of them do serve a purpose. Most NDAs have to do with protecting trade secrets of corporations, which is a sensible idea in the business world, but there’s a growing sentiment in the legal community that such contracts aren’t even worth the effort to enforce. Still, companies don’t want their workers taking their trade secrets and best practices to the competition as soon as a better offer comes along, particularly when the innovations were not the creation of the employee in the first place. Such agreements are understandable.
But Trump seems to be referencing less technical and more personal issues, hence the reference to “kiss and tell” books. If your boss is something of a tyrant who screams at the staff and kicks over trash cans, should an ex-employee be legally barred from talking about that or writing a book describing their experiences? Nobody likes to see unflattering portrayals of themselves in the press, but such agreements definitely smack of the suppression of speech. Still, if the person signed an agreement they can be held to the terms, right? I suppose so, but when you’re looking for a job in a tight market you’re sort of over a barrel in terms of agreeing to things just to get your foot in the door.
As I said, it’s complicated. Clearly none of this should prevent whistleblowers from exposing corruption, fraud or waste after they leave, but not all such “tell all” books fall into that category. We can’t have former government employees revealing national security secrets, but how far can you reasonably go to stop them from making somebody look bad? That probably dives into areas of libel law, so I’ll just abandon that line of thought. Still, NDAs for federal employees who don’t deal with national security matters sounds like a very bad precedent to set.