What to do about sexism and sexual-harassment at skeptics events (Part Two). Name names.

Since my last post, the Internet rumble about sexism and sexual harassment at skeptics events has grown louder.  There has even been an absurd and self-aggrandizing call from a blogger at Freethought Blogs for JREF president and über-skeptic DJ Grothe to resign because he lacks the “progressive” ideological purity mandated by at least that one denizen of Freethought Blogs.

At any rate, the topic of this post is what should be done to minimize sexism and sexual harassment at skeptics conferences (I do not say “eliminate” because that is an impossible goal).  TAM has an anti-harassment policy.  It was instituted by DJ Grothe, who was an an early adopter and proponent of such policies.  The irony that a blogger at Freethought blogs has called for the resignation of a man who has been at the vanguard  in this area on the specious grounds that he is not pure enough in his ideology further underscores the idiocy of the call for DJ to resign).  TAM’s anti-harassment efforts seemed to have worked on at least one occasion.  Apparently this is not enough.  Recent bloggers and commenters have called for anti-harassment policies to be put on posters at events or to be distributed in handbills.  Some have even called for a sexual harassment training session to be held at the commencement of events.  None of this, in my opinion, is the answer.

From a legal standpoint, I think anti-harassment policies are unnecessary and can subject event organizers to unwarranted liability.   If such policies provided robust protection to women at these events, they might be worth it, but they don’t and they’re not.   Employers and educational institutions must have anti-harassment policies in order to minimize potential liability resulting from legal claims brought by victims of sexual-harassment.  Conference organizers do not have the same liability concerns.  But, by adopting anti-harassment policies, conference organizers might be deemed to have assumed a legal duty to prevent acts of harassment.  Attendees could claim that they went to the conference with that assumed duty in mind, and that they therefore expect protection.  In the event of an incident, they can claim that the organizers failed to carry out their assumed duty, and thus seek damages.  For a big event like TAM this might not be a problem, as I assume that the JREF has adequate liability insurance to cover such a claim and to provide them with legal protection.  Local groups that host events like Skepticamp are much less likely to have such insurance coverage, or even to have a corporate entity to provide a minimal liability shield.  The Ohio Skepticamp organizers recently enacted an anti-harassment policy for their event, and in my opinion this was a big mistake legally.  What’s next, and anti-harassment policy for Drinking Skeptically or Skeptics In The Pub?  Maybe one for your local meetup group?  Your Fourth Of July Party? There is just as much potential for sexual harassment at those events, except perhaps for the 4th of July.

Instead of a blanket policy, I think conference organizers would be well advised to have a blanket statement in their conference materials that they reserve the right to eject attendees from a conference for any behavior that, in the sole discretion of the organizers, they deem inappropriate, with no refund.  This gives maximum flexibility to deal with unforeseen issues, and avoids people trying to game the system by attempting to skirt the line of sexual-harassment policies without violating them.  It also assumes no duty and does not increase the chances of litigation.

Another problem with reliance on anti-harassment policies is that they are limited in scope.  Much of the issues in conferences occur in public areas of the venue, like the hotel bar and hallways.  These areas are not under the control of the conference organizers.  Kicking someone out of a conference for violating an anti-harassment policy does not necessarily remove them from the picture, and a hotel staff might have very different views about what is the appropriate level of violation warranting removal that conference organizers.  In fact, to put it into TAM terms, if a person is kicked out of the conference, they can still be a cad at the Del Mar Lounge, and they might even be more so because they no linger feel the threat (minimal as it is) of conference expulsion.

The biggest problem with anti-harassment policies, apart from potential liability, is that they have no teeth.  If you violate an employer’s anti-harassment policy you can be fired.  You can be expelled from school if you violate the school’s policy.  No skeptics conference anti-harassment actions will ever come close these negative outcomes for sexual harassers.  This even applies to speakers, as attendance at skeptics conferences is likely to be a small part of their lives and income.

None of the stuff tried or suggested so far is the answer.  The only real answer is to name names.  That’s right, name names.  I will repeat it–name names!  If someone engages in sexual harassment, especially someone well known in the community, the impact on their reputation from being named as a public sexual harasser could have a major impact on their life, including their life outside of the skeptics community.  Once some high-profile harassers are called out publicly,  and once the consequences of the behavior are known, there might actually be a real deterrent to the behavior.

But names are not being named.  People are afraid to name names.  Why?  They are afraid of being sued for defamation.  To that attitude, I say humbug.  I say put your money where your mouth is.  Truth is a defense to defamation in US courts.  An absolute defense.  If you tell the truth when you name names, you will win in the end.

But you are probably still afraid of being sued if you name names.  Let me try to give you some inspiration.  One of my favorite pieces of writing is J’Accuse by Emile Zola.  He wrote J’accuse because he believed that a great injustice had been carried out in the Dreyfus affair.  Because it was a great injustice, he was willing to literally put his freedom on the line, knowing that he was taking on the entire French government and knowing that he would be subjected to prosecution for defamation.  He had to go into exile in England as a result.  He named names.  He spoke the truth.  He took a risk.  All because he knew it was the right thing to do.  I have always found the last bit of J’Accuse very inspiring.  Here is a translation into English:

In making these accusations I am aware that I am making myself liable to articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29/7/1881 regarding the press, which makes defamation a punishable offense.  I expose myself to that risk voluntarily.

As for the people I am accusing, I do not know them, I have never seen them, and I bear them neither ill will nor hatred.  To me they are mere entities, agents of harm to society.  The action I am taking is no more than a radical measure to hasten the explosion of truth and justice.

I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness.  My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.  Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the inquiry take place in broad daylight!  I am waiting.

If you know–and I mean really know, as opposed to rumors and hearsay–about skeptics behaving in reprehensible ways towards women at skeptics conferences, and if you think it is a serious problem, you need to name names.  It is your duty.  You owe it to the community, to the women in the community, and the people who care about them. You need to take the risk.   You need to name names.  Like Zola, you should do what you can to hasten the explosion of truth and justice.  Let them dare to bring you before a court of law for in inquiry in broad daylight.   Do what must be done.  Name names.

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  • satan augustine

    There seems to be an implicit assumption on your part that everyone who gets sexually harassed has the financial resources to take on a defamation accusation. I’m sure you know that many women don’t. And even if we were to assume that, with truth on their side, that they would win the case (which, let’s face it, is an inaccurate assumption), there’s no guarantee that they would be able to recoup their legal expenses.

  • xinit

    Hmmm… this almost feels like it was written by a lawyer…

    • admin

      Alas, a humble human resources professional.

  • 0verlord

    If someone engages in sexual harassment, especially someone well known in the community, the impact on their reputation from being named as a public sexual harasser could have a major impact on their life, including their life outside of the skeptics community.

    I’m happy you clarify your opposition to rumors and hearsay, but let’s face it: regardless of their motivation, not everyone has pure intentions. For precisely the reasons you stated in the excerpt I quoted, to claim someone is sexually misbehaving is a serious charge!

    If naming names is the solution, then falsely naming names ought to have the same social consequences. Lacking such a risk, “naming names” is nothing but than a game where the house always wins.

    Cheers, -0

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