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The price of celebrity privacy

June 04, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Why is Tinseltown such a big, happy family? Every mogul is a fine upstanding citizen, and every diva is really Mother Teresa?


Confidentiality agreement, anyone? You know, those useful contracts that everybody in showbiz uses to protect their laundry, dirty or not. They're up there with prenups as one of Hollywood's most ubiquitous legal agreements with studios, stars and increasingly just any part of the celebrity-entertainment apparatus demanding them.

The true nature of confidentiality agreements has always perplexed me. Are they rightly protecting the rich from avaricious gold-diggers, or are they simply a license to behave badly, a permanent threat against the lowly? I imagine many drivers, nannies, cooks and cleaners (and decorators and pool men) don't read the fine print carefully before they sign, let alone send it over to their lawyers for perusal.

Let's face it, in much of Hollywood, what's at stake is not really trade secrets (or potentially hazardous products). It's just reputations and conceivably the true and accurate history of public, culturally significant figures. You can't sell a baby in this country or an organ or your vote, but free speech always has a price tag.

"Such contracts are enforceable," notes 1st Amendment specialist and professor Eugene Volokh of UCLA School of Law, although he adds, "None of the agreements can stand up in the face of a subpoena, if there is litigation."

So if a celebrity does something illegal, all bets are off. You're allowed to go to the authorities if you're attacked or sexually harassed by a mega-movie star, but "if you learned this person has really unpleasant ideas or says racist or anti-Semitic things, can you go and talk about it on a weblog? No," says Volokh. "The whole point of the contract was to allow this person to talk freely, that the things they say are not going to be revealed to the world at large."

"They're legally binding agreements," says attorney Larry Stein. "If properly prepared and executed and as part of a work environment, they can be extremely effective. They're not a violation of the 1st Amendment. It's not a private gag order. It's a contractual arrangement between two parties."

Nightmare case

Rob Lowe's current battle with two of his former nannies is a nightmare version of what can happen when the love sours between celebrities and their paid acolytes. (Stein happens to represent the Lowe family but declines to talk specifically about the case, as do both of the Lowes. The nannies have also refused to comment, though their attorney, Gloria Allred, was happy to weigh in.)

I have to admit I always liked the freakishly handsome star -- and definitely thought "The West Wing" went down the tubes after he left it. But I wondered if he cut off his nose to spite his face when he published an angry and self-righteous tirade on the Huffington Post, saying, "a former employee is demanding my wife Sheryl and I pay her $1.5 million by the end of the week or she will accuse us both of a vicious laundry list of false terribles. It is an attempt to damage and humiliate not only my wife and me, but our two young sons as well." He added that he wasn't going to pay her " 'Hush money' to just go away. . . . No one intimidates my family."

According to Allred, who now represents the nannies, Jessica Gibson and Laura Boyce: "It appears that an attorney for Miss Gibson communicated to an attorney for Mr. Lowe that she was making a claim of sexual harassment against Mr. Lowe in an attempt to resolve this matter.

"Now rather than the claim being resolved, as often claims are, prior to any litigation, it appears that Mr. Lowe chose through his attorney to wage what's called in the media a preemptive strike by filing a lawsuit against her and Ms. Boyce" before the nannies could file their claims.

Interestingly enough, Lowe did not sue Gibson for extortion but for allegedly breaking her confidentiality agreement and nine other alleged misdeeds. Gibson countersued, accusing the star of groping her and exposing himself to her -- accusations he denied. She's also upgraded her legal representation to media star Allred, a far more formidable opponent than her original attorney, John Richards, who'd been sentenced to jail for a couple of days for not paying child support. (Richards declined to confirm, deny or comment, referring all inquiries to Allred.)

Admittedly Gibson hasn't helped her case by working on and off for the Lowes for seven years -- weird behavior if she'd been harassed. When she quit the last time, she sent them loving texts saying things like "Sheryl, I am really sorry. I have nothing bad 2 say about your family and really am thankful for what you guys have done for me over the years." Also, during her appearance on "Today," Gibson appeared giddy with all the media attention.

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