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Editorial: Clear lines needed to end sexual misconduct at work

It’s been three days since NBC fired ‘Today’ host Matt Lauer.

Three days since Minnesota Public Radio fired Garrison Keillor.

Three days since Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., announced he will not seek re-election next year in the wake of sexual harassment claims.

Five days since Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., apologized after multiple women came forward to say he groped them.

A month since Netflix dropped Kevin Spacey amid sexual misconduct allegations.

A month since women came forward and said U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama groped them when they were teens.

More than a month since the New York Times and New Yorker reported dozens of women have alleged sexual misconduct by mega-producer Harvey Weinstein.

More than two months since Fox News fired Bill O’Reilly after paying out millions to women who accused him of sexual misconduct.

A year since Fox fired founder Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.

More than a year since NBC News fired Billy Bush after an Access Hollywood tape was leaked that had Bush giggling at then-candidate Donald Trump bragging he could grab women by the genitals.

More than two decades since Bill and Hillary Clinton downplayed his sexual misconduct as “bimbo eruptions” during his campaign for president.

These are just a few recent lowlights. Yet today, too many women – and men – will still be sexually harassed at work. Because unless and until there is zero tolerance for such behavior, it will continue to be a spectator sport in famous circles and a grim reality in non-famous ones.

And that should start with our elected officials. It is essential that Congress shed light on the $17 million paid out to 264 individuals for workplace violations, including sexual harassment, and ban the practice of these secret settlements going forward. Twenty years of gag orders have allowed unacceptable behavior to flourish in the dark. New Mexico’s congressional delegation concurs. (See Michael Coleman’s story on A1.)

And it is essential Congress, New Mexico, county and municipal governments as well as private businesses establish clear lines of what constitutes harassment and misconduct. N.M. Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, is urging Legislative leadership to address physical and verbal harassment along with the sexual kind. That’s important for protecting both potential victims and accused harassers.

The need for such clear lines is exemplified in the case of Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, now considering dropping out of the 2018 race for lieutenant governor as city payouts for allegations of him creating a “sexually hostile work environment” resurface. Like Sen. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., first defending then decrying Conyers, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat who is running for governor in 2018, has sent mixed signals on Padilla, dancing with him at a fundraiser, then telling him to leave the race.

(And if Padilla’s too damaged to run for lieutenant governor, how can he remain in a leadership position in the state Senate?)

It’s these mixed signals and blurred lines that have helped make unacceptable behavior accepted in society, and for victims’ allegations to be discouraged and dismissed.

And yet it is also all too easy to see a pat on the back, an off-color joke, a well-intentioned compliment being used to ruin careers and lives because someone wanted to jump on the #MeToo bandwagon.

In the coming days it’s clear more famous individuals will join the aforementioned celebrities in the sexual misconduct spotlight. What’s not clear is if our government leaders and employers can establish clear policies that help ensure such behavior is unacceptable in the workplace, whether you’re famous or not.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.