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NBC says it won't prevent former employees from speaking publicly about sexual harassment

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In his new bestseller "Catch and Kill," journalist Ronan Farrow wrote that NBC News had nondisclosure agreements with at least seven women who claimed they were sexually harassed at the company, including some who alleged mistreatment by former "Today" host Matt Lauer.

Now, NBCUniversal says former staffers are free to speak out about their experiences. In a statement first reported on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show," the company said it will release past employees from agreements that may be preventing them from sharing their stories.

"Any former NBC News employee who believes that they cannot disclose their experience with sexual harassment as a result of a confidentiality or nondisparagement provision in their separation agreement should contact NBCUniversal and we will release them from that perceived obligation," the statement said.

The impact of the company's announcement remained unclear on Saturday; NBC has insisted that the agreements were standard and not meant to prevent women from discussing sexual harassment, while Farrow reported they were understood as "payouts" or "settlements" to keep accusers quiet.

Minna Kotkin, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law school and director of its Employment Law Clinic, called it a "first step" but questioned why the employees would have to contact NBC to be released from the agreements.

"I don't know why you would need to notify them," she said. "Either you're released or you're not released. I assume they want to try to do some damage control."

Maddow broke the news of the NBC statement moments before an on-air interview with Farrow, who won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for his New Yorker stories on sexual misconduct allegations against former film producer Harvey Weinstein. He began working on the story while employed by NBC, but the network passed on it.

Network executives have said that decision was made because the reporting didn't meet journalistic standards. In "Catch and Kill," Farrow offers a different explanation: the company feared sexual misconduct allegations against Lauer might be exposed. The longtime Today host was fired after a former NBC News producer filed a complaint with human resources, claiming he raped her. Lauer denies the allegation, characterizing the relationship as consensual.

"Catch and Kill" claims that women who had previously made allegations against Lauer kept quiet due to nondisclosure agreements. Network executives have vehemently denied those allegations, with NBC News President Noah Oppenheim calling the book "a smear" and denying knowledge of past misconduct by Lauer.

"There is no evidence of any reports of Lauer's misconduct before his firing, no settlements, no 'hush money' - no way we have found that NBC's current leadership could have been aware of his misdeeds in the past," he wrote in a memo to staff.

But Farrow told Maddow that he had spoken to multiple women who "expressed agony over the fact that they are constrained by these agreements."

"The fact that they are ending that and releasing these women is significant," he said. "It should be a model for other companies."

Kotkin said such agreements can be detrimental "for a lot of reasons." They obscure the extent of employment problems and sometimes make employees believe they can't report misconduct, she said. She noted that some states have recently passed legislation barring employers from using nondisclosure agreements to shield discrimination or harassment claims.

"As these things remain secret, people think - they did think until very recently - that sexual harassment isn't such a problem anymore," Kotkin said. "Because no one's allowed to talk about it. They mislead the public, they mislead the courts, they mislead employees. They just skew the conversation about discrimination when taken out of the public eye."

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