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Posted by on Apr 8, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Law, Politics | 27 comments

I support the CFI conduct policy

There has been much discussion in the blogosphere about conduct policies – including misrepresentations of my own position. So let me just go clearly on the record to say that I support the CFI policy on hostile conduct and harassment when taken together with Ron Lindsay’s explanation of the rationale behind it, and how it will be interpreted/applied.

With such policies, the devil is not only in the detailed wording but also in the (stated or unstated) intentions as to how the policy will be read – e.g. will the stated forms of prohibited behaviour be read broadly (so as to prohibit large categories of behaviour) or will they be read down to an extent, so that the full literal meaning is not invoked and the exclusions are narrower? Lindsay’s statement makes clear that there will be some reading down. In particular, the phrase “unwelcome sexual attention” will not be read sweepingly so as to include all possible behaviour that might fall within the literal words.

Phrases such as “unwelcome sexual attention” or “inappropriate sexual conduct” are often used as euphemisms for something much nastier, such as sexual blackmail or assault. In some cases, the more anodyne phrasing is used to let offenders off the hook in public: it is a refusal to state the full nastiness of what really happened. I think we should be more willing, in many of these cases, to state the ugly but important truth, rather than to use such euphemisms.

However, these euphemisms are also out of place in harassment codes, since their literal effect would be to ban many kinds of benign interaction, including interactions between spouses or lovers (if, for example, one pays sexual attention to the other who turns out “not to be in the mood right now, honey”). I’d like to see less use of these euphemisms all round. They only create confusion. In particular, I despise the weasel word “inappropriate” in this context.

However, Lindsay makes quite clear that what is meant is not, for example, an ill-judged (hence “unwelcome”) attempt at flirting or to set up a romantic date. Rather, it is obnoxious or abusive sexual conduct. Lindsay writes:

As already indicated, our aim is to apply the policy in a way that is objectively reasonable using contemporary standards. It is not our intention to prohibit flirting or a polite expression of interest in another person. For example, without more, the question, “Would you be interested in having a drink later?” would not be considered harassment.

But one-time expressions of interest/invitations to an encounter could be inappropriate [ugh!] under the policy, which is why inserting the word “repeated” in the policy would be unwise. To take a crude example (those with delicate sensibilities can skip ahead), asking someone “Wouldn’t you like to bury your head in my crotch and suck my dick?” could constitute harassment, even if it is said only once and accompanied by no other action.

This is fair enough. The explanatory post also makes clear that the behaviour must be “both objectively abusive and subjectively abusive; in other words, it must be conduct ‘that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive and one that the victim did in fact perceive to be so'” (my emphasis). I think this is the correct approach, legally and in terms of ordinary good sense, even though not spelled out clearly in the policy itself. So the phrase “unwelcome sexual attention” will be read down to mean “unwelcome and objectively abusive sexual attention”. On that basis, I don’t think this code is objectionable in any way, and it may do some good.

For the record, I have never been against codes of conduct for conventions. I have been against poorly drafted or overreaching codes of conduct. Once Lindsay’s explanation of the purpose and intention is taken into account, I don’t consider the CFI conduct policy to be overreaching. Furthermore, weaknesses in the drafting are pretty much cured by the overall stipulation that the conduct must be not only subjectively unwanted but also objectively (in the sense used by lawyers) abusive. Better still, Lindsay’s post deals with many of the problems that can arise with such policies – to its credit, the CFI rejected all of the policy elements that most worry me about such policies. For example, it rejected blacklists, dress codes, restrictions on sexual language and imagery, and restrictions on who can have sex with whom. None of these highly draconian and intrusive proposals – some of which were being advocated at the time, and some of which have actually appeared in certain other policies! – can be found in the CFI policy.

Accordingly, I support the CFI policy (in its stated interpretation and application), and it will cause me no misgivings about appearing at CFI conventions.

I know that some of my readers have stronger reservations about such policies than I do. If you do, let’s have a civil discussion about it. I think that many people have unnecessary concerns about conduct policies in general (as opposed to poor drafting or overreaching attempts to control our behaviour). Perhaps I can allay at least some of them.

  • RussellBlackford

    Not sure why blockquote isn’t working in this post. No time to try to fix it now, so any advice received by email would be appreciated. Or if someone connected with Skeptic Ink can just fix it I’ll be even happier.

  • Your defense and justification actually speaks against such a policy for at least a couple of reasons.

    1. Policies are not restricted to the use of the author or what they intended. Lindsay will eventually leave CFI. Other groups might CC the policy, as we have seen happens. They might not appreciate the nuanced understanding Lindsay provided.

    2. The necessity of an explanation shows the weakness of the document (here are our rules, but don’t take them too seriously, it’s not *really* how we manage ourselves) and its lack of clarity which should be job 1 of any serious behaviorally restrictive policy. In other words, the policy fails to do the one thing it should do: clearly spell out the rules of engagement and modes of response.

    3. If you’re not obeying the letter, but the spirit, the letter doesn’t seem all that important. It isn’t clear that it’s even useful. If you need euphemisms as fundamental elements and definitions, then you’ve waded into legal and political waters you probably should not be in. That should give CFI pause. Matters that involve law enforcement (assault) are not CFI’s purview. Moreover, the fact that you need a policy for your organization to re-ban things that are already illegal make your org look like some sort of center of substantial criminal activity. It’s not enough for assault to be illegal, we must also regularly remind our members not to do it because assault is wrong.

    Lindsay has demonstrated that the policy isn’t useful (All along, Lindsay planned to “read between the lines” that is, use his own judgment and NOT the policy). And he’s shown that the policy exposes CFI to legal liabilities it clearly fears and bet-hedges against clauses so weak and wrongly-stated that they are false on the face of them (e.g. “unwanted sexual advances” are not unilaterally proscribed). Not exactly a triumph for an international organization dedicated to rationality and clear-thinking.

  • RussellBlackford

    Ed, some of your comments have merit – but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as simple as 1. suggests. I think the CFI is going to be kind of stuck with that interpretation unless it specifically repudiates it some time in the future (in which case I, for one, would be protesting).

    I also think the only really problematic phrase in the policy itself is the “unwelcome sexual attention” one, which is fairly easily read down in the way I described. Obviously, I’d have preferred some words in the document itself to make that clear without having to rely on what amounts to an explanatory memorandum. Bear in mind, though, that courts rely on explanatory memoranda and the like all the time in many jurisdictions, and there is nothing terribly wrong with the practice. CFI officials are certainly not precluded from doing so.

    I also think you’re tending to be unnecessarily uncharitable about Ron Lindsay and the CFI – it’s not as if these sorts of documents are easy to draft, especially when there are doubtless many stakeholders lobbying the organisation with their different emphases and concerns. Such a document could easily end up being a camel – you know, what happens when a horse is designed by a committee. By and large, I think the document is not like that. It is pretty clear and well-drafted on its face, despite all those pressures, and I certainly don’t think anyone should be alleging actual bad faith.

    Some of your other points are worth exploring in more depth. But there’s an important misconception in them that I’ve often seen in this debate, and I’d like to say something about it. It’s the idea that such policies are aimed at law enforcement or at conduct that would be illegal in any event. That just isn’t the case. I keep seeing this sort of claim from people on my side of the current Deep Rift, but it’s not true.

    Maybe it needs another blog post to explain this. *sigh* I hate to argue from personal authority, but bear in mind that I used to practice in HR/IR/law doing a lot of workplace misconduct/discipline stuff (among other things) and at one stage I even put together (I was listed as “editor” not “author”, the author being the legal team where I worked) a manual on EEO and sexual harassment law for the corporate market. So I do actually know quite a bit about this, and I see a lot of misconceptions on both sides of the argument. I’ve found it a bit frustrating.

    Maybe I should try putting together some sort of FAQ. Meanwhile, since that sounds horribly time consuming, do bear in mind the following. Much obnoxious and hostile conduct that can disrupt or spoil things for others at a gathering is perfectly legal. Even if it is illegal, strictly speaking, it is unlikely to be of great interest to the police (who have a lot of discretion as to which illegal conduct they will follow up… and just as well given their limited resources) and even less likely to be of great interest to the criminal courts (which are always massively overloaded with trivial cases). Furthermore, obnoxious conduct, whether or not technically illegal, can’t usually be pursued by the victims of it in the criminal or civil courts – in many, many cases, this is simply not practical.

    In the upshot, we really ought to get the idea that an organisation like the CFI is trying to enforce the criminal law completely out of our minds. By analogy, that is not what employers are doing when they promulgate a code of conduct (reserving the right to warn, demote, or dismiss an employee for breach). Nor is it what convention organisers try to do if they create a code of conduct (reserving the right to cancel a membership without a refund and expel a perpetrator from the convention spaces… possibly also banning the perpetrator from future conferences). If you think of this as related to the criminal law, you’ll misunderstand the whole debate.

    The point for conventions is to set some outer bounds to acceptable conduct so that selfish people at the convention don’t spoil it for others through behaviour that is commonly regarded in our society as obnoxious or unreasonable. It is open to conventions to apply some specific values of their own, such as putting stress on not disrupting sessions, not engaging in certain kinds of emotionally charged (e.g. racist) abuse, etc. But the idea is not to enforce the criminal law – it is to set boundaries that conference delegates are expected to agree to in order to facilitate quiet enjoyment of the convention. I don’t see why this can’t be useful. It does give a reminder and some idea of what might not be acceptable. After all, some audience members really do get carried away and disrupt sessions – so it’s worth specifically saying that this is not acceptable.

    I’d argue that the boundaries should be very broad. They should not forbid wearing sexy clothes, creating erotic pictures for the art show (if there is one), telling “dirty” jokes or engaging in sexual banter, etc., etc. We should not be trying to make people suppress their personalities: this might be appropriate to some extent in a conventional office, but conventions are meant to be places where we can all let our hair down to an extent, reveal our personalities, and have fun. We should only be trying to forbid behaviour that would be regarded as abusive or obnoxious by rather broadminded people with a pretty robust, tolerant attitude. Thus, a conduct code should be broad in what it allows – and I think some of the codes that have been put in place are worryingly, sometimes comically, intrusive.

    Still, it will happen from time to time that individuals at conferences cross the boundary, perhaps in ways that the conference finds especially troubling (again, it is entitled to have some special sensitivities). So I really see nothing wrong with a conference having a policy that deals with this, and I don’t know why so many sensible people find the idea upsetting… at least once the purpose is understood. The CFI one seems pretty much fine to me, subject to that one point I made about the need that objective abusiveness be required. I don’t otherwise see it as forbidding innocuous or beneficial conduct.

    I repeat: I think some of the policies go much too far. For example, I’m very critical of the policy that was adopted by American Atheists. The latter really does seem to forbid all sorts of things that should, without more, fall well within acceptable behaviour. For example, there is nothing inherently obnoxious about showing erotic art in public spaces, but the policy pretty clearly forbids it (banning public display of “sexual images”). It seems to have been written by a committee of people with all sorts of specific hang-ups, and some of it (e.g. the stuff about deodorants) is downright creepy and can only tend to bring atheism into disrepute. There is also a problem when policies start listing law enforcement agencies and the like, which gives a false impression of what these policies are about: they are to help deal with disruptive or obnoxious behaviour that spoils the fun for other attendees, not to suggest that conventions are dangerous places or hubs of criminal activity.

    Still, just because there is some bad drafting and overreaching around in certain policies doesn’t entail that we have to get upset by every policy that attempts to deal with genuinely disruptive or obnoxious behaviour. Just try to read it for what it is.

  • I was not alleging bad faith. I presume everyone involved is well-meaning.

    I am not impressed or concerned that stakeholders have pressured the drafting of this policy or that doing so is difficult. Neither makes it a good policy or unfit for criticism. If the topic is about whether or not Ron Lindsay is a super guy or not, then we can talk about the why’s. It has no bearing on the merit of the policy.

    re: enforcing of the law. You said, that “…the idea that such policies are aimed at law enforcement or at conduct that would be illegal in any event.” is “not true.” But you also said that some terms are euphemisms for much “nastier” things, such as (your words) “such as sexual blackmail or assault.” Well which is it? Is the policy euphemistically referring to blackmail and assault (those are crimes, illegal in any event) or not? If the policy is *not* aimed at them, then the euphemism explanation is erroneous. In the case of CFI’s actual policy it does cover things that are always illegal: “groping”. Groping a stranger is assault. It’s always illegal. Why does this need to be put into a policy? What is the need?

    You mention HR law and what “employers” do. That is not the topic of discussion. This policy is not about employees. That is what internal policy and memos are for. This is specifically about people who are not employees- people at events. HR law has absolutely nothing to do with this. Anyway, my chief objection on this point was not that CFI would be playing law enforcement, but that policy restricting illegal behavior is pointless.

    You say that the policy is meant to apply to lawful, but “disruptive” behavior. Fair enough, things people do can be disruptive without being illegal. True. However, an org is paying a number of costs having this high-visibility policy. 1. Legal liabilities. And yes, there are some, at least in the US. To quote a lawyer:

    “There are a couple of legal issues at play. One of them is detrimental reliance, the other is assumption of a duty of care. They are both kind of related. Let’s say you put out a policy saying that you will protect people from harassment, and someone goes to the conference after reading that policy, and they are harassed. They might have a cause to sue you, because you assumed a duty to protect them and because they will claim that they would not have even attended the conference without your policy of protection from harassment. Ordinarily a place like a conference is not going to be liable for the actions of third-party attendees. You just could not get sued for what an attendee, or customer, does. You can always get sued for what your employees do, so again an internal policy applying to them is a good idea, but not to third parties. Let me give you an example. You go to McDonalds. Some other customer harasses you. You generally can’t sue McDonalds for that. But if McDonalds had some kind of policy that prevented customer on customer harassment, and that they would actually enforce that policy, well maybe that harassed customer will be able to sue McDonalds for failure to comply with the duty of care that they assumed when they put out that policy. Bad idea. I would say don’t do it.” (source:
    2. It makes it appear that there is a need for it, that there are widespread problems with controlling disruptive or harassing conference goers. There aren’t. 3. It has generated needless strife and controversy.

    Now then, we’re all rationalists here, right? We bow to the evidence. What benefit justifies the above 3 costs? Is there any reason at all to think this policy has any effect on how conferences run, or how safe people feel at them? Here are the data we have in hand:

    a. The JREF/TAM is the only conference ever to poll its attendees as far as we know. No statistically significant number of people claimed to feel unsafe or unwelcome.

    b. Over the years, dozens or hundreds of conferences have transpired across the country without any widespread reports of a hostile environment or harassment requiring special intervention. (As an anecdotal correlary to the lack of evidence here, I must say I have been to many conferences singular for their incredible sense of energy, ebulliance, and comfort; This is part of the atmosphere in many if not most and is widely attested-to by attendees)
    c. ReaderCon is a conference with a well-specified, broad policy against harassment, promising zero-tolerance lifetime ban of harassers. After getting complaints about a member, the harasser in question was later allowed to return, at which point he harassed, stalked, and assaulted a person who had originally complained. In other words, the strongly-written policy did absolutely nothing to prevent harassment and even assault which it might have, because it depends on the will and judgment of conference and organizational leaders. Evidently, writing these things down is not a magic spell that fixes anything. source:

    It seems to me that we have absolutely zero evidence that a problem exists, that this (policy) could solve it if it did, and certainly none that it ever has. Furthermore, we have significant evidence that policies alone do not help the few individuals it might (as compared to sensible event management alone, in which some people should be banned/booted).

    While I do not contest the right of any organization to decide what is appropriate or not at its own events, this sweeping and deliberately high-visibility policy is not rationally justified.

  • Ronlawhouston

    The point is that these things are just placebos thrown to people who demand them. A ticket to an event is a revocable license. You don’t need a policy to eject an obnoxious turd from an event. I call this one with the “no harm, no foul” rule. The policies are benign. Yes, they treat adults like infants, but I guess some adults need to be treated like infants.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks, Ed. There’s a lot here and we may need another thread. But the analogy with an employer is a reasonable one. As I said it is not a complete analogy. For example, considerable suppression of our personalities might be something reasonable to insist upon in many workplaces, whereas it is totally not reasonable at a convention (especially the kind of convention we are talking about), which is actually supposed to be a place where people have fun, etc.

    So, it’s not a complete analogy. But the point is that convention organisers are in a situation more like that of an employer (or an educational institution, say) than that of the police. It is not their job to enforce the criminal law. It is merely their job to facilitate an environment that is not spoiled for others by disruptive, obnoxious, etc., behaviour, and they do this for their own reasons. In that sense, they are in a similar position to employers trying to create a harmonious environment for employees. So I described both similarities to HR for an employer (not trying to enforce the criminal law, but merely to facilitate harmony, quiet enjoyment) and differences (it is far less appropriate to have policies that might require people to suppress aspects of their personalities, walk on eggshells, etc.).

    I’m not sure, therefore what your real objection is to a policy such as the CFI one, once we set aside the bad drafting of “unwelcome sexual attention” that I pointed out in the original post, and which you agree with. This will have to be read down so that it only applies to objectively obnoxious, abusive, etc., as well as subjectively unwelcome, sexual attention, and the CFI, or at least Ron Lindsay, has been honest enough to admit this.

    I’m certainly not suggesting that all objectively obnoxious, etc., sexual attention takes the form of something illegal. I did mention the way the term “unwanted sexual attention” is often used as euphemism for very serious, even criminal behaviour, and I suggested that we should preferably stop using such weasel words – and likewise for the word “appropriate”. But let me repeat: I expect that most obnoxious sexual attention and other obnoxious conduct at conventions will either not be illegal at all or will not be of practical interest to the police. The point isn’t to get criminal action taken against people or to act as agents of the criminal law, but merely to provide an avenue for complaint to assist in what I hope we all want – an environment that is fun, but which people can enjoy quietly with some relatively easy and informal assistance if someone goes over the line.

    One of your arguments seems to be that the CFI is thereby taking on a duty of care that it might not otherwise have and/or someone might argue that they were somehow harmed by detrimental reliance on the policy, etc. I understand that argument, but I’m not sure why you are so worried about it or why you think I should be. Surely it is up to the CFI to get advice about how realistic a concern this is and how much its legal exposure is really increased (or whether it might even gain an advantage in negotiations with insurers). My own feeling (I don’t put it higher than that) is that the extra net legal risk, if any, is likely to be very small and not something worth its while worrying about if the organisers have countervailing concerns. In any event, this is not an argument about the policy being draconian, unreasonably restrictive, intrusive, etc., which is, frankly, all I really care about, since I’m not on the CFI board and charged with concern about its legal exposure or insurance costs. If the CFI wants to increase its legal exposure, or if it turns out that the CFI has made a bad judgment about all this, that’s really a matter for the board to sort out. The tiny amount I give to CFI is neither here nor there as far as I’m concerned.

    There are then questions about motivation, etc. You’re the one who brought up issues about what Ron Lindsay “planned to do all along”, etc. If you’re not interested in pursuing points of that nature, then let’s set them aside and not mention them again. Okay?

    There is then the issue of clarity – but the policy doesn’t seem particularly unclear to me. There is one phrase in it that will be read down in an obvious way, and the CFI (or its CEO) has already indicated that this will happen. I just don’t see any terrible drafting in the rest. The only real issue as far as I am concerned is that one phrase. If I were given the job of redrafting it, I doubt that I’d change the policy much.

    Nor do I know what the very different Readercon policy has to do with this. I’m familiar with that case, but what is it supposed to prove except that there really are some very odd people who go to conventions and act in scary ways? You say that conduct policies are not magic spells that fix everything, but, really, where did I say anything to the contrary? Please don’t attack a position that I did not put and don’t hold. I doubt that anyone in the current debate holds such a strange position – not even opponents of mine who might, in my opinion, put far too much weight on these policies. No law, workplace rule, or other norm of conduct is ever a magic spell. For example, workers sometimes punch their supervisors, but it doesn’t follow that there should be no rules against violence in the workplace just because compliance with them is imperfect. The same applies to tort law, criminal law, etc. Compliance is always imperfect, but so what?

    I do think there are serious problems with the way the Readercon policy was drafted, but then again many policies have problems. I’ve already spent a fair bit of time here and elsewhere criticising the American Atheists policy for example. Likewise, I think there are big problems with the Skeptech policy that Justin Vacula has been criticising. I think his criticisms of it are generally justified.

    But again, the issue isn’t whether some policy is perfect but why we might reasonably want such policies, or why we might not want them, and what should their content be if we do want them (based on their purpose). I think we can learn from the mistakes of, say, the AA policy, which clearly can’t and won’t be enforced in accordance with its literal meaning.

    In the end, I just don’t think the CFI policy is draconian. I don’t see why I should get upset by it, or even why I shouldn’t support it, given that it will only prohibit objectively obnoxious, disruptive, etc., but not necessarily illegal, behaviour.

    Are such policies necessary? Well, I’ve been going to conventions with a similar demographic for over thirty years, and I can tell you from personal experience that a certain amount of such behaviour does take place. I don’t think that is a particularly extraordinary claim. If the claim is put in that modest way, I see no reason to be sceptical about it.

    So, yes, it might well do some good to have a policy that forbids obnoxious, disruptive, unreasonably hostile, etc., conduct, provides some deterrence other than more heavy-handed means such as invoking the criminal law, and says something about how it will be dealt with procedurally. I’ve already made the point that such a policy should not be too restrictive, should not be written in a way that suggests that conventions are hot beds of crime, etc. I don’t think that a brief and simple policy like the CFI one reads like that, though some others do, especially when they start tacking on all sorts of information about police phone numbers, etc. So I do take some of your points here, but they are points about drafting, not points about why there should be no conduct policies in place at all.

    But I agree with that there was no urgency about introducing these policies. While there is plenty of evidence that obnoxious, disruptive, etc., behaviour can happen, and sometimes does happen, at conventions in general, there is no evidence of a problem within the secular movement that was so urgent as to require the formulation of these policies quickly, at a particular time, without broad consultation (in which you, for example, could have expressed your concerns), or without good explanations (I think the explanation from Ron Lindsay actually is good, but it’s a rare exception). I note, ruefully, that few people have explained the pros and cons of these policies, and the rationale for them, in anything like the detail that I am doing on this thread. Instead, people have frequently been demonised for not agreeing almost immediately.

    So I agree that there was no evidence of an urgent problem to be tackled without those involved bringing the community with them. But then again, I’ve never suggested that there was. On the contrary, I’ve copped a lot of flak for denying that there was evidence of such an urgent problem.

    At the end of the day, I think it’s good (but I don’t say compulsory) for a convention to have a policy on the sort of behaviour that is sufficiently unwelcome to lead to evictions, cancellations of memberships, etc.; how the policy can be accessed; and how it will be applied and enforced. But I also think that such policies should not be overreaching or give the wrong impression as to what they are about/motivated by. I think that some policies that were drafted recently are bad, and I think a lot of policy formulation happened against a background of false urgency, almost a moral panic. All the same, I can’t see any argument that should bother me (as opposed, perhaps, to an organisation worried about legal exposure) as to why we should not have these policies at all.

    In any event, that has never been my concern. I have been concerned about the false urgency being used to railroad us, and I have been concerned by bad drafting and overreaching requirements. In particular, I’ve been concerned about policies that are intrusive, draconian, etc. I’m only restating my position in this paragraph, but I think there’s enough confusion around regarding my position that restating it is worthwhile.

    Let me know if there’s something important that you think I haven’t covered. It won’t have been deliberate.

  • Russell,

    CFI has the most thoughtfully drafted conduct policy in the skeptic biz, from what I’ve seen. I have no objection to it in theory. If any policy can be made to work well, this one can.

    In practice, however, one of their prominent employees has suggested they should “read up” some of the provisions of the policy to include (among other things) certain uses of social media at anytime prior to the conference. She also encouraged her followers to report people like Justin Vacula as harassers so as to allow CFI to prevent them from attending a particular conference. Some of them, such as Josh Slocum, have already stated their intention to do so.

    It is clear to me that CFI is going to have to face up to the situation wherein their reasonable policy is turned into a cudgel to squelch dissent. It is unclear how they will react when this happens.

  • Shadow of a Doubt

    Hi all, just thought I would chime in on this, I’m not a lawyer or anything so I’ll leave that part alone, but when it comes to the harassment policies, there seems to be a problem of what we would call a “suspiciously specific denial”. When one creates a policy of attends a skeptic conference or something of the nature, one expects the majority of others attending to show some common sense, and listing something in the policy which would violate that suggests that it happens often enough or in a serve enough way as to present a problem. I don’t know if anyone here has played the computer game “Portal” but at one point the computer voice directing the player gives them an inanimate cube and tells the player that the cube “will never threaten to stab you”. I doubt a player ever worried about an inanimate cube threatening to or stabbing them before that moment, but players certainly did afterwards.

    I think the thrust of what Ed is trying to say is that by putting things in the policy, which would simply be common sense, creates the impression that the problem is endemic enough to warrant a written policy preventing it. Imagine if someone put “rape will not be tolerated on convention grounds” into the policy. Everyone knows rape is bad and illegal, but if it were specifically mentioned it would suggest that it happens enough to be placed in writing. Creating a panic over something that is not a problem is counter productive.

    The second point is that, as these policies have been shown in the past to be less then useless in the past where put in place or outright contravened by the conference organizers themselves, it’s just security theater for the special snowflakes, and it’s detrimental to pander to them in any way, in my opinion.

  • GeorgeLocke

    Do you have a link to this prominent employee’s suggestion?

  • Clare45

    I am not a lawyer either, but I tend to agree with Ed on this one. Having a complex anti-harassment policy might actually backfire of the CFI legally. Imagine you are a person who has spent a lot of money on attending a secular or skeptic conference and who makes a couple of off-color sexist jokes or makes verbal approaches to a person of the opposite sex (or same sex for that matter) after being told once that the person is not interested. You are then reported to the conference organizers and escorted out. No more conference for you and a big loss of cash. Not to mention your reputation is ruined. In that situation you might be tempted to sue the organizers, and you could win despite your obnoxious behavior and you have not broken the law.

    In view of that, it might be a wiser move to make a polite suggestion as to the preferred behavior of conference attendees- a sort of code of conduct rather than a legal policy. Having said that, hotels and conference centers have security staff who are responsible for criminal acts, so why not leave the legal policies to them?

  • RussellBlackford

    Well, if we are talking about serious criminal acts then it’s a matter for the police. I say “serious” criminal acts because the police don’t have the time to deal with every technically criminal act in the jurisdiction, and at conventions the alleged perpetrator and victim may both live out of town and not want the matter dragged through the local courts. All in all, it’s just not practical to rely on police for everything that might happen. They are essentially a last resort.
    I do agree that policies should not be overly complex, and they should be more like codes of conduct in the way they are drafted than anything else (I tend to favour fairly informal drafting that appeals to the common sense of the attendees, and I don’t favour banning things unless pretty well all attendees could see that they are obnoxious or disruptive when thinking about it clearly).
    I also agree that it’s better to handle issues as discreetly as possible rather than risk defamation suits. That’s one reason why complainants should also be discreet, rather than going public. But it’s not a reason to do nothing if someone really is causing trouble.

  • RussellBlackford

    I agree with some of this. It’s all too easy to draft policies in a way that has these bad effects, and I think an element of what you describe with the “suspiciously specific denial” has taken place. But I think part of the trouble was with way policies were advocated as if there was an urgent problem that had to be dealt with yesterday – which even involved debate in the mainstream media about whether secular conventions might be nasty and hostile environments, etc.
    A lot of conventions beyond the secular movement already had conduct polices, and no one was put off by them as far as I know. For example, the National Science Fiction Convention, here in Australia, last year had a brief policy that I was fine with – although it did contain some wording that was not enforced (but was there for insurance reasons). Science fiction conventions have had to have at least some policies if only to deal with issues that relate to costuming (e.g. how much use can be made of replica weapons) so attendees are used to conventions laying down at least some rules.
    This is not to say that science fiction conventions always get it right. As mentioned in my discussion with Ed, the Readercon policy was problematic. This was because it simply banned all forms of harassment (whatever that means, but this might not be terrible wording in itself) and then imposed a nuclear penalty of being banned forever from Readercon. The effect of this is to make it very difficult to deal with the inevitable grey areas or to find that there are cases of harassment at the less serious end where, for example, a warning might be appropriate. It’s all or nothing – either the behaviour is not considered harassment at all, or you’re out forever. That violates our commonsense understanding that some cases will fall into a grey area, that even some clear-cut ones will be more serious than others, that there can be extenuating circumstances, etc. There would surely be a pressure to find that some behaviour did not fall under the policy, even though it actually was obnoxious or disruptive and should have been dealt with somehow.
    But anyway, if the CFI policy had been introduced with no great fanfare, in a more normal environment, without all the rage over Elevatorgate going on, I don’t think it would even have been a big deal. It would be placed somewhere in convention handbooks and on convention websites, and it would arguably do some good. I just can’t imagine that a policy like this, by itself, would produce a lot of backlash or a lot of this sort of panic that you mention.
    Shorter version: I think the problem was more in the overall handling of this issue in the secular community than with the specifics of the CFI policy.

  • RussellBlackford

    That would clearly be an abuse of the policy. The aim of the policy is/should be to ensure that people’s fun at the conference is not spoiled by, say, disruption of sessions, obnoxiously worded offers of sex, racial abuse, etc. It is not to create a blacklist of people who are considered undesirable.

    Of course if someone did engage in a sufficiently serious way in, say, disrupting sessions or shouting at fellow attendees, I’d have no objection to banning them from future CFI conventions. But Justin Vacula, to take that example, has done nothing whatsoever that I know of that should get him banned from attending CFI conventions. I didn’t click on your links, but if someone has made this suggestion it is simply ludicrous. I’d trust the CFI leadership not to act on any such proposal.

    Indeed, if someone who is an employee of CFI has gone public in that role, smearing an individual in such a way, I’d say that is an abuse of his or her position, perhaps bordering on misconduct as an employee. Justin would probably be within his rights to file a complaint about it, but that’s a matter for him.

  • Shadow of a Doubt

    You raise a good point, if the conference had simply included something along those lines, or better the more standard “Conference X reserves the right to remove attendees for inappropriate behavior at the discretion of the staff”

  • I am not comforted by the fact that the action would be “clearly an abuse…” or that Justin could file a complaint. By then the damage is done, and for what? Your objections notwithstanding, I see all costs and no benefits.

  • One more cost to these sweeping policies from Justin Vacula, is that organizers may appear to be hypocrites, at best, and dishonest wielders of a witchhammer, at worst.

  • RussellBlackford

    Fair enough – happy to leave the discussion there except to repeat that it’s not so much a matter of enforcing the laws of the land (if you mean the criminal code in the jurisdiction) as to have some way of dealing with disruptive or obnoxious conduct that may well not be illegal (but may be such as to spoil things for other attendees).

  • Read through this thread in which the CFI-DC director and one of the WiS speakers recruit their fans to write letters to CFI in support of a preemptive ban. This is what harassment policies can become in the wrong hands: a sword rather than a shield.

  • They are benign, right up until they metastasize.

  • Shadow of a Doubt

    Sorry, just to clarify there, I should have not used “laws of the land” as I was using it metaphorically, a poor choice given the nature of the conversation, it was meant to mean the rules of the establishment, or event. Otherwise thanks for the time.

  • RussellBlackford

    Okay, no problem.

  • RussellBlackford

    Folks, a certain amount of this is turning into complaints or grievances about individuals. At least one individual has been accused of, in effect, attempting to abuse the policy.

    First, let me say what I’ve often said in the past both here and at the old site for this blog – I don’t want The Hellfire Club to become yet another battleground for the rights and wrongs of Elevatorgate and its various sequels. It’s not a place to continue pursuing grievances against individuals.

    If there are individuals who want to abuse the policy to harm Justin Vacula then I’ll be the first scream loudly if those individuals succeed, but I very much doubt that they will.

    In the current environment, there is so much animosity and distrust that I wouldn’t be surprised at attempts (and not just from one side) to abuse even the best and fairest policy any organisation could come up with. That’s partly a legacy of the extraordinary environment created over the past two years or so, for which many people can be blamed (again, not on just one side).

    But a policy such as we’re discussing isn’t put in place just for the immediate term or just to deal with concerns from one section of the secular community. This particular policy is obviously intended to be fair, it rejects many of the crazy proposals that were around at the time, we have something of an undertaking made in advance that it will be applied sensibly, and it appears to be aimed at past problems of disruption, etc., not narrowly at sexual harassment (let alone at establishing some absurd standard of sexual expression, such as a dress code or a ban on sexual language and imagery).

    If it’s a reasonable policy in itself, and in its likely interpretation and application – and I think it is – then I’m going to give it my support, while also being vigilant about possible misuses. I do hope that it won’t be abused. Once again, I’ll be very unhappy and noisy if it is, but I do have some trust in the senior management and board of the CFI, partly because I know some of these people quite well. I can’t expect y’all to take my word for it that the policy is in good hands – I’m painfully aware of that point – but a lot of the arguments I’m seeing are really about reasons to be suspicious in the current environment, not reasons why, on balance, a policy like the CFI’s is inherently a bad thing, or a bad thing given the problems that CFI has actually encountered in the past.

    I’m going to discourage further comments about the alleged failings of Melody Hensley in particular (hopefully she’ll reciprocate on this, but that’s up to her; we all know she dislikes me). I did not create this thread as another place to attack her or to escalate any debates with her going on elsewhere.

    As for the merits of the policy itself, can we try to divorce ourselves from current suspicions about the good faith of individuals, fears of actual or possible attempts at abuse, etc.? My question is: why not set out how disruptive and obnoxious conduct will be dealt with internally by a convention, and which forms of it an organisation might, in its discretion, take an especially hard line on? To me, this is just not such a big deal, and may be useful, as long as the actual policy is not unnecessarily restrictive, intrusive, etc. If it is those things, it can be a restriction on how people can be themselves and have fun. But if the policy is aimed at objectively abusive conduct of various kinds, I don’t see why it can’t contribute to attendees (particularly women) feeling reassured, and to everyone having fun at the convention with less chance of it being spoiled by other people who are selfish and/or drunk and/or plain weird.

    Slightly shorter: please try to keep personalities out of the discussion. Meanwhile, I am positive but vigilant about this particular policy. I think these policies can have a role if they don’t overreach and if they are not abused. I also think that a hyper-suspicious attitude to them even in principle, such as I’ve often seen, doesn’t help us get past the current cultural war in the secular movement.

  • GeorgeLocke

    Thanks. I didn’t see the link in your OP cuz the css/browser/my colorblindness combination makes links the same color as the text.

    As to forbidding entry for behavior prior to the conference, the policy has this to say: “CFI and its affiliates have a zero-tolerance policy for hostile and harassing conduct. If a person engages in hostile or harassing conduct, appropriate remedial action will be taken, which may include, but is not limited to, expulsion from the conference. Threats of hostile conduct that are made prior to a conference may result in exclusion from the conference.”

    The policy qualifies “threats of hostile conduct” as the only kind of behavior outside the conference that supports a ban. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. I am unaware of any such threat Vacula has made without which the twitter thread in your link indicates abuse of the policy.

  • Exactly. Abuse of the policy subtly solicited by a CFI local leader and conference organiser, and openly requested by one of the WiS speakers. Makes me have to ask whether we can feel safe buying tickets to such events.

  • GeorgeLocke

    But doesn’t it seem reasonable to have a policy that keeps people who make threats (to be carried out at the conference) from attending? Or do you think that any reference to behavior outside the conference is asking for abuse?

  • To be clear, I’m not complaining about the wording of the policy at all, at least not here and now. I’m complaining about a certain tendency to read and apply it far more broadly than is warranted.

  • GeorgeLocke

    Thank you for clarifying. I misunderstood you.