Notes on Harassment Policies, 1/20/14

Convene magazine is the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association, i.e., the people who actually organize and run conventions, and its December 2013 issue had a long piece on why harassment policies are a good and intelligent thing to have (pdf link). I’m quoted in it quite a bit, but the article also features quotes and comments for several professional convention runners, as well as lawyers, discussing liability, setting and managing expectations, and what conventions and conferences can do and can’t do with regard to attendee behavior. For the folks who are interested in this particular topic, it’s well worth the read.

(As noted above, the link is to a pdf of the magazine, and note that the article is bisected by an insert on another topic entirely; just keep turning pages.)

Among other things, the article answers, rather more comprehensively than I could, this hand-wringer from Michael Kelley in Publishers Weekly, concerning the ALA posting a statement of appropriate conduct for attendees of its conferences, starting with Kelley’s sensationally leading opening sentence and going on from there.

I will say, as someone who was ultimately responsible for a small convention for three years (and who was incredibly fortunate to have seasoned convention runners at the tiller to ensure things ran smoothly as possible), that when I see people thumping about on how harassment policies are a threat to free speech, I see them as naïve at best and disingenuous at worst. Leaving aside (yet again) that conferences and conventions are almost always private events by private companies in private spaces, and that each of these private entities is able to set its own policies and expectations, in the best traditions of free enterprise, the sort of person who conflates “free speech” issues with a convention or conference rightly deciding to set attendee expectations as regards reasonable behavior and limiting its own legal liability should an attendee decide to do something stupid, is someone whose understanding of any of those concepts is simplistic or at the very least blinkered to the point of uselessness.

Tangentially related to all this is the ruckus that went down this weekend regard in the Chi-Fi Convention, in which the organizers cancelled the event, claiming the hotel was unwelcoming and that it disapproved of the convention’s harassment policy. The hotel replied rather strongly to the assertion, flatly calling the claims “false”; subsequent investigation suggests that at the very least lots of details were elided, regarding Chi-Fi’s initial statement.

There’s a lot I don’t know about the details of the Chi-Fi ruckus, so I’m going to offer what follows here as a general comment, not tied to any specific convention or hotel, regarding harassment policies. And it is:

If a convention wants to have a harassment policy and the hotel hosting it disapproves of the convention having such a policy, it’s possible that the hotel is staffed by assholes. However, if a convention decides to publicly and falsely (or at least so incompletely as to effectively falsely) claim that a hotel did not support its desire to have a harassment policy as a way to deflect attention from the convention’s other organizational issues, then it’s not the hotel staff who are being assholes.

A harassment policy should not be used as a shield to deflect attention or legitimate questions with regard to the organization of a convention. Aside from any other problematic issue with such a maneuver, doing so has the potential to make it harder for other conventions who wish to implement harassment policies to do so, or for other conventions to work with hotels at all — now hosting hotels may be concerned that such a policy might be used as cudgel, i.e., “if we don’t get our way, we’ll use the harassment policy to drop the Internet on your head.” The short-term (and very temporary) ass-covering for one convention has long-term implications for every other convention.

So let’s hope that never actually happens.

50 thoughts on “Notes on Harassment Policies, 1/20/14

  1. No disagreement here. Well said (and that piece by Kelley opens ridiculously, I agree. It’s the rhetorical-question version of a buzzfeed/huff post headline, designed to draw clicks).

  2. I think showing your harassment policy to the facility a good thing, however there’s a wrinkle you need to be sensitive to.

    Convention’s attendees are there by the permission of the convention. The convention has wide latitude to remove them if there’s an issue. Hotel staff are there as a condition of their employment. In the unlikely event there’s an issue with hotel staff, the resolution is going to be subject to negotiation between the convention at the facility at the time, not by fiat of a policy that exists on the convention side only. Especially in situations where there may be employment contracts with unions….the hotel’s ability to agree to things affecting their staff may be limited.

    As for the specific Chi-Fi case…if there’s anyone out there thinking that other folks are being mean for disbelieving them at this point…

    Conventions get held in hotels by making them money. No money, no convention. When the event cancelled, Chi-Fi very publicly told the community to ask them *any* questions about the situation and that they were free to comment about anything. When questioned by *a lot* of different sources bout how the convention was doing on paying for it’s space, suddenly information was “protected by an NDA” or sometimes only vague statements like “we were on target”, but no idea of what the target was and where they were in relation to it (which *should* be “pretty much there” when you’re only a couple months out).

    Their caginess on this topic, which is *the single most important* detail of how things are going between a convention and a facility (and it’s not the facilities fault for a failure here) is a pretty strong indicator of the failing of the relationship being caused almost entirely by mundane business issues.

  3. ..and to be more clear…

    Their caginess on this topic, paired with the fairly apparent deception on their part about the hotel acknowledging the “freaks” comment (as released in the Amazing Stories article, the hotel did no such thing, they said “the examples of what we disagree with are not limited to X, Y, Z”)….well, it makes no small number of people believe there’s very little truth in what Chi-Fi said. Not even a sin of omission, more likely a complete misdirection.

    If they’re untruthful about several other things, why exactly are we supposed to believe anything else they’re saying is accurate?

  4. Yeah. I’ve done trade shows and conventions from pretty much all directions – organizer, vender, attendee, contract negotiation and management – and ChiCon’s story smells like week old sushi. Just to start, if their cancellation fee was $84K, the organizers were wildly optimistic about attendance–they started out in a hole, unless they had that in initial capital, which I suspect is not the case. Tsk.

    Even the choice of venue is a very odd for a new Con. Westin’s are not cheap hotels, to start with, and DT Chicago is expensive real estate. Enthusiasm and the desire to put on a high quality event is great, but one has to be realistic and pragmatic. Fiscally conservative, if you will. :)

  5. In re Kelley’s piece and the ALA, I would like to provide two bits of context:

    One, librarianship has a historical commitment to intellectual freedom, and that’s a big hot-button issue for a lot of librarians. (Which is *great*.)

    Two, while librarians who are into technology or science fiction have been familiar with code of conduct issues for a while, many librarians don’t overlap with those worlds, and thus the whole code of conduct idea comes out of left field.

    One and Two interact poorly.

    I am not defending Kelley’s piece here (anyone who’s clicked through and read it already knew that). I do think that we have an opportunity in libraryland right now to discuss how our important commitment to intellectual freedom does, in fact, dovetail with the importance of providing safe spaces for diverse voices, as well as to publicly negotiate our cultural norms and explicitly affirm that we are in favor of diversity and inclusion.

    (I have been repeating this to myself a lot lately.)

    If you are interested in these issues in libraryland in particular, and you’re going to be in Philadelphia on Saturday, I will be moderating a panel on gender issues in technology librarianship, 4:30-5:30 in the convention center room 201C, as part of ALA’s Midwinter conference. This panel is not specifically about the Statement of Acceptable Conduct, but I hope that by sharing our diverse and sometimes surprising experiences, we can underscore the importance of this statement to many members of our community. I wholeheartedly invite you to show up.

  6. Mintwich: Not Chicon, which is a completely different convention, run by a completely different group. This refers to a new organization called Chi-Fi.

    And I’ll note that the four annual fan-run conventions in Chicago (Windycon, Capricon, DucKon, and MuseCon), as well as Chicago Pulp and Paper and Chicago TARDIS, are all held in Westins without any difficulties.

  7. I thought something was hinkey when I heard the first half of the Chi-Fi situation. I hadn’t heard the rest, so thanks for sharing that. As for the rest your comments, I agree. It only takes one person to pee in the pool to ruin the party for everybody.

  8. Thanks for the secondary link, John.

    I was sensitive to relationships between hospitality and conventions because I ran into a situation 13 years ago where I was trying to book a hotel for a paintball event and other paintball events had mistreated their hotels (vandalism, cancelled reservations, misuse of hotel property – including chocolate cake icing smeared across a room ceiling, I kid you not) to the point where most hotels simply refused to do business with paintball events.
    I found a good, independent hotel that was willing to talk, and had to jump through quite a lot of fairly expensive hoops to obtain a contract (extra security on the ground 24/7, agreement to be responsible for certain potential damages, supplying the hotel with various materials so their own property would not be misused).
    When something threatens the (fairly good) relationship between fandom and the hospitality industry, it needs to be looked into and settled – positively – as quickly as possible.

  9. People who complain that their “freedom of speech” is being trampled upon by such harassment policies seem to ignore the fact that the only guarantee to freedom of speech referenced in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is that “government” shall make no law restricting the freedom of speech. If you go to a convention, by your purchase of a ticket to that convention, you have agreed to abide by the convention’s rules and regulations, including those on harassment, or in your opinion your freedom of expression. I had an incident at ChiCon(WorldCon) in September 2012 that convinced me that I will never go to another WorldCon again. I felt bullied, embarrassed, and the people in the room who witnessed it did nothing, with the exception of one other person, and they left the room when I did. The policies are there to protect everyone, and that includes someone else’s right to expression. I just don’t understand people who think THEIR freedom to express themselves outranks someone else’s freedom. You pays your ticket, you dance to the tunes they play. If you don’t like the harassment policy because it stifles your freedom to harass and bully, don’t go to that con. Simple solution, huh?

  10. Also, the people who are against harassment policies whole cloth (because they think that harassment isn’t a big deal or they think that harassment policies violate their civil and human rights) have a cudgel to use against those of us who are fighting harassment. False harassment claims, ergo let’s dismantle the entire civil rights and women’s rights movements.

  11. The “Convene” article was quite good.

    Kelley conflates a systemic problem to a specific to a specific convention, which is silly. Every company I’ve worked at for the last number of decades have all had annual anti-harrassment training. That doesn’t mean those particular companies had rampant harrassment, rather it means that harrassment is a systemic problem, needing a systemic solution, i.e. everyone needs to be innoculated against it.

    The other advantage I see is that the more harrassment policies become the norm, the more they become sort of standardized, the more there is a channel for dealing with harrassment, then maybe inviduals won’t feel the need to deal with harrassment via their own ad hoc solution. Its not good for conventions to deal with harrassment ad hoc. And it isn’t good if individuals respond ad hoc either.

    For example, if the pycon/donglegate thing had been dealt with through the convention’s anti-harrassment procedures, rather than an individual responding with an ad hoc appeal to the mob via public shaming, I don’t think it wouldn’t have spiraled out of control the way it did, it would have been dealt with on a more appropriate response level, and it wouldn’t be a wikipedia entry.

  12. One thing to highlight. I don’t have a problem with harassment policies in general, but I have come across some I find problematic. Some policies read like they are designed to remove all human judgment from the process, and we have a pretty fair example of how that can go bad.

    In discussions of this, I have frequently come across folks who conflate problems with a specific policy with objections to them in general, which is a very troublesome leap…it causes a lot of heat and very little help in the discussions.

  13. Chi-Fi is a first year convention being done mostly by folks at the top who have never run one before.

  14. This is contentious?

    I agree completely, and not just because I am a drooling, gibbering Scalzi cultist (Scalzi ftagn!).

    Blaming your own shortcomings on the people whose hotel you are monopolizing for your vast gathering? Not cool.

  15. as for as a interesting and controversial topic or post to wait for Monday to discuss I will say that for me this is boring as hell.

  16. Josh, sure, why not?

    Convention doesn’t mean fandom, after all. Trade shows and the like are enormous, and enormous undertakings. Major metropolitan areas spend millions of dollars (Nashville just spent a hair under $600 million, as an example) to build convention centers to attract tourism dollars. It’s a business with over a quarter of trillion dollars in direct spending yearly in the USA alone.

  17. This reads like ‘the people who organized this convention were so annoying and difficult that the hotel didn’t want to be bothered for the amount of money they were making’.

    Could easily be a personality issue. Sometimes customers get to the point where they are not worth the hassle. There is only so far John Scalzi will go to sell 1 more book.

  18. Generally speaking, a convention’s room night promise to a hotel (when things are paid for in that manner) is a number that you can miss by about 20% without penalty. The facilities understand the variable nature of this sort of thing so the targets are set up to make sure they’re a reasonable amount above the minimum needed to operate.

    The indication is that Chi-Fi missed the target by 95%….which would definitely explain any cold shoulder they may have been feeling dealing with the facility.

  19. @fuzznose: I’m saddened to hear you had a bad experience, and I’d like to (as the chairman) tell you I am very sorry that anything occurred that you could describe that way. I would dearly appreciate if you’d take the time to document your issue and send it along to chair@chicon.org.

    It’s definitely not our intention that anyone have a bad time or feel bullied or embarrassed. If you’d allow us the chance to learn from your experience, we can hopefully prevent future folks feeling the same way.

  20. Dave, I have sent you the information you requested via separate email. Thank you for your concern. I know the organizers intend everyone to have a good time, and for the most part for me, I did have a good time.

  21. How utterly disappointing of Publishers Weekly to run such silliness. But we’re in transition, which means oodles of hand-wringing. In a few more years, these codes will be old hat at publishing, gaming, comic, entertainment, SFFH conventions and no one will be freaking out over them or understand why anyone else would either. And the reason is as expected — limiting legal liability and the competition for attendees who aren’t putting up with the excuses. My favorite bit was the part about does the ALA or any convention need harassment codes, “although there have been incidents.” You have to love how they throw that in there before returning to hand-wringing.

  22. Hm. I have to wonder if this is definitely going to have an impact on the ability of “first year” conventions to get off the ground. Between the MLP convention in Las Vegas last year, and now this, I expect some convention-hotels will be seriously reviewing whether or not to deal with fandom conventions that aren’t already established… or will at least put further requirements on them such as “non-refundable deposits required”.

    Plus, how many fans will start to think, “maybe I’ll not book first year conventions outside my own town, much less my own state?”

    Either way, I’m predicting convention launches getting a lot harder… possibly quickly if we have a third spectacular incident in the next month or two.

  23. Hi John,

    As usual, a cogent and well-stated point of view on the whole issue. Many people who are under-educated or who refuse to understand the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, think that Freedom of Speech is some sort of Universal Right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Amendment states, quite clearly, that the GOVERNMENT is the one that is restricted from infringing on any expression of free speech (and later interpretations exclude things like yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater or speech which inflames the listeners to riot, for example). It has NO impact on the rules and regulations that a private entity, such as a convention, can place upon its attendees.

    Sadly, in far too many cases where people start yelling about their “right to free speech,” the common sense understanding of the First Amendment is as lacking as their belief in what they think it does and, indeed, as lacking as Common Sense appears to be in modern America.

    Let us all hope that this incident does not impinge upon the ability of both new and established F&SF conventions to work productively and effectively with hotel management in the future.

    Lee Darrow, C.H., D.I.

  24. Many people who are under-educated or who refuse to understand the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, think that Freedom of Speech is some sort of Universal Right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Amendment states, quite clearly, that the GOVERNMENT is the one that is restricted from infringing on any expression of free speech

    And even here, there are several allowable ways for the government to infringe on expression –for example, place and time restrictions—ain’t no way you’re going to be allowed to hold a rally with amplified sound in a residential area at 2 am. Common sense, you say? Well, let’s apply that to harassment policies….

  25. Thank you for referencing the Convene article: the more conrunners and congoers who follow the trade rags the better we all are. And I really appreciate the “(and who was incredibly fortunate to have seasoned convention runners at the tiller to ensure things ran smoothly as possible)”

    You’ve managed to cover two things: that conventions are more than just ‘us’, they’re a real business and we’re part of it. We’re not the only people trying to figure out the best way to deal with harassment issues and there’s a lot out there that can help. And your support of seasoned convention runners. For a while it’s felt like being a punching bag, Seriously, things along the line of “we’re not blogging about what happened because we’re busy trying to see it doesn’t happen again!” while true didn’t work really well. Hunkering down in defensive mode was even worse.

    As to the subject at hand, the conclusion that Chi-Fi was scrabbling for an excuse says a great deal about the way people see conventions. It’s not too long ago that other people being out to get us was an accepted reason for anything that went wrong. There was also a time when hotels viewed SF conventions rather askance. Today everyone is, for lack of a better term, professional. The Chi–Fi assertions don’t make sense, the hotel clearly has absolutely no issues with SF conventions.

    Way cool.

    I do have some thoughts about harassment policies, none of them related to free speech, (huh?) but for now I’m going to bask in the pleasure of the post and conversation being perfectly normal.

  26. I don’t know anything about the situation with Chi Fi, but I will say generally that if a convention claims its harassment policy was violated or not honored by the hosting space, and it wasn’t, that’s doesn’t just have implications for other conventions — it has implications for harassment being taken seriously when it does happen, which I think is far worse. The sort of “at-best naive” people John mentions are not likely to be swayed by the seriousness of harassment and intimidation in the event of an organization trying to use their policy to save face, or misrepresenting what happened.

  27. It’s notable regarding the Chi-Fi kerfuffle that one of the loudest blogs of the SJW wing of these issues put up a piece totally taken from the organisers’ side without any consideration of the hotel’s possible response.

    They essentially encouraged their readership to dogpile on Westin Chicago River North, and dogpile they did, with remarks such as “I hope this comes around to bite the Westin Chicago River North, hard“, “Word is getting out about the hotel. I don’t know if it will be boycotted but I’m pretty sure other sci-fi fans who hear about this are going to think twice before going there.” and “The Westin Chain shall feel the wrath of the Alpha Geek.“.

    So far there has been no comment or retraction as these further details have come out.

    You’re aware that people associate you with such SJW antics, right, John?

  28. Phoenician:

    “You’re aware that people associate you with such SJW antics, right, John?”

    I’m not responsible for the imaginary versions of me people have in their own heads, Phoenician. Nor am I responsible for what anyone else does and says on their own site.

    With that said, I have personally found a high correlation between the sort of person who uses the phrase “social justice warrior” with any sort of seriousness and the sort of poorly thinking racist, sexist, homophobic jerks who I am generally delighted to annoy simply by existing. So the chances of me being perturbed by what that sort of person thinks of me (or with whom they associate me in their minds) is really very low.

  29. Respectfully, I don’t see why this piece might be considered contentious. It (simplistically, I admit) boils down to a statement of fact: assholes exist. In this specific circumstance, you have added qualifying statements addressing the muddied waters around this incident and offered some tools by which the assholes might be reliably identified.

  30. Phoenician, you did catch that Chi-Fi claimed that the hotel staff called them “freaks” and was hostile to fandom, right? And that perhaps this, rather than the harassment policy thing, was the real reason for “alpha geek” ragery? After all, harassment policies are hardly a settled thing in fandom – you’re far from the only one to sigh and tut-tut about SJW (“politically correct” is so 2012, mais oui?) repressing our free speech – while on the other hand, The Mundanes Are Laughing At Us is a very reliable hot button.

  31. I think if he’d posted it on Saturday, when only one side of the Chi-Fi story really was out in the world, it would have been far more contentious.

  32. “Moderately contentious” != “contentious subject with lots of drama” or even “a [sic] interesting [to people who style themselves ennui-laden via their usernames] and controversial topic.” John is also not responsible for the inflation of his phrasing that apparently occurred in your head.

  33. Phoenician, you did catch that Chi-Fi claimed that the hotel staff called them “freaks” and was hostile to fandom, right? And that perhaps this, rather than the harassment policy thing, was the real reason for “alpha geek” ragery?

    Oh yeah, I got that. Harassment policies, in general, are good ideas.

    The problem is that the ragery has become way too eager to be unleashed when the less thinking on the left think they have a righteous cause.

  34. You wrote, “…the article also features quotes and comments for several professional convention runners…”

    Did you mean from there?

  35. The problem is that the ragery has become way too eager to be unleashed when the less thinking on the left think they have a righteous cause.

    There’s a lot of “ready-fire-aim” rhetoric going on in ALL the poles of American sociopolitics right now. There’s also a lot of calm, measured debate going on while the children throw their tantra. It is to be hoped that the latter will eventually balance out the former.

  36. Okay, so I’m holding a convention and put together some wuss harassment policy, either because I don’t want to deal with the issues or the possible backlash that could result from a gazillion agendas (at least as many as there are ‘types’ of people in this world), then blame any of the resultant backlash from a further gazillion agendas on the sponsoring hotel to snake my way out of the awkwardness? Wow, that’s kind of brilliant in a reptilian sort of way. Slick.

  37. A quick data point on harassment policies having the intended effect –

    I’ve been working security at conventions for the last 25 years or so. A couple of weeks back someone walked into the security office to report harassment – and it was an absolutely perfect and complete complaint. Who said what, to whom, witnessed by, badge numbers, and a clear statement that the harassed person clearly told the harasser ‘no’ and the conduct continued. It was stunningly complete. It was the most useful harassment report I have ever received.

    I’m betting that the people who filed the report have been reading some of the many, many descriptions on how to do it right.

    And that said, no, I won’t be providing further details. :-) People have a right to their privacy, and none of the people gave me permission to make public statements. Let’s just say there were no further issues with respect to any of the parties involved.

  38. EKovar:

    We’re not the only people trying to figure out the best way to deal with harassment issues and there’s a lot out there that can help. And your support of seasoned convention runners. For a while it’s felt like being a punching bag,

    I’m afraid that you get limited sympathy on this one. These harassment policies should have been in place fifteen, twenty years ago and updated over the last two decades, especially at the bigger cons. That they frequently weren’t, that some people have had to endure the sort of harassment that you would expect to have happened in the far past and then have very little help and support from the people running the con at which it happened, that disabled people have frequently been entirely ignored — there’s a lot of understandable anger about that, and impatience, boycotts, and pushing to get it changed — which is almost the only reason why a lot of the cons are now getting harassment policies in place.

    Most other industries and areas have already had these policies in place for a long time. Any business lawyer can concoct you one, including one dealing with volunteer staff. So “figure out the best way to deal with harassment issues” is the sort of phrase that will make people very angry, because what you are really doing is playing catch-up, not having to figure out something new. The punching bag is one that many con-runners entirely created themselves as a situation. That there have not been a good number of major lawsuits is an amazing amount of luck to the geek and publishing con systems. That there is hand-wringing over the ALA in the year of 2014 is nuts. So it’s not surprising that there isn’t always a measured, polite and comforting conversation with the people who have either let this problem hang there for decades as con runners or who aren’t even running cons but freaking out in the media or the Net over cons finally getting their act together.

    I really don’t want to read about people getting hurt at cons anymore (and I mean sometimes physically hurt, which has been happening,) I don’t want authors having to avoid cons, and I don’t want to watch con runners, who love the field, get into trouble for not having something that is standard practice most other places. I hope the catch-up is fast. From what you’ve said, you do too. But the people who got and are getting punched are the people who get harassed or who are in a wheelchair and find themselves stuck in a corridor. It’s past time to fix it. I know a lot of people are trying.

  39. Floored: I’ve got to ask, because I have been reading this blog for a while now, and I inevitably come across your comments: Why does John sleep?

    Or, if you like: You: “Scalzi ftagn!” Me:”You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    ;-)

  40. Wow, there was a lot in that article on SF cons, a segment of the convention world I didn’t think normally ran high in the radar of professional convention-runners (largely because our cons are run by volunteers). Are we really that much the trend-setters in establishing harassment policies, or is it that we need them more than other kinds of cons?

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