Conduct Unbecoming

Shortly after the American Library Association‘s Annual Meeting in Chicago last summer, I was approached by a group of ALA Members, ALA Councilors, and others about coming together to develop a “code of conduct” for ALA’s professional conferences. The group worked over several months, offered a document to ALA’s Office of Conference Services and the ALA Executive Board which was approved and accepted. The “Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences” is not new policy, but rather  a restatement of existing policies and procedures that have existed in the Association for many years in a concise form.

This Statement has been causing much consternation in Libraryland as of late. As someone who worked hard on gathering policies and solidifying them in this statement, I am proud that our Association offers this information – quite plainly and openly – to all conference attendees. Will Manley offers the latest critique of the Statement, and I feel that the time is right to offer my own voice to this discussion. As one of the people involved in creating this statement, but speaking on my own behalf, I’d like to respond to his criticisms and offer my own unique insight into this discussion.

Why? – ALA has gone over a hundred years without making librarians conform to a conference code of conduct.  What were the circumstances that necessitated enacting a code now?

As an ALA Councilor-at-Large and ALA member for over 10 years, I have been approached by several ALA members who have experienced bona fide examples of harassment and intimidation at conferences. Women touched, embraced, or fondled inappropriately. Others who had to suffer through verbal harassment or intimidation. Transgender and genderqueer members told by conference staff that they could not use a certain restroom. While the association has had policies guarding against such behavior for years, there has never been a definitive statement on the types of behavior that will not be tolerated and what the consequences of such behavior would be.

And to be honest, even though this type of “bad behavior” has been going on at ALA Conferences for years as evident in my experiences and the experiences of others, the impetus of the Statement was born out of some high profile incidents at recent technology conferences in the last few years. As these conferences were developing “statements of conduct”, a group of concerned ALA members got together and worked with ALA staff and leadership to develop a statement for the Association as well. As stated above, the Statement is not new policy. We simply concatenated existing policies and statements into a unified and easy to reference document.

How? - Admittedly I am not an ALA junkie so it’s quite possible this policy was comprehensively vetted by ALA’s membership.  However, I don’t recall reading about it  so I wonder: how exactly was this policy written, vetted by the membership, and approved by the ALA Council and Executive Board?

First, this is not new policy, just a restatement of existing policy. It was developed by a concerned group of ALA members in conjunction with the ALA Office of Conference Services, and vetted and approved by the ALA Executive Board. If this was indeed new policy, ALA Council would have had to weigh into the process as well, but as this was a restatement of existing policies and practices, no action by Council was necessary. As an ALA Councilor-at-Large, I have a feeling that this will come before Council at Midwinter next month, and I anticipate that Council will give its stamp of approval as well.

Please Define and Refine Your Terms:  The policy states: “Some behaviors are specifically prohibited: harassment or intimidation based on race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status.”  My guess is that if you ask 100 librarians for a definition of “gender identity” and “gender expression” you will get 90 different answers.  ALA needs to define those two terms.  Also “other group status” is incredibly vague.  If I say something negative about Skinheads will I be violating the code of conduct and be reported to the Director of Conference Services?  How about the Knights of Columbus?  The Tea Party? The Rotary Club?  The Burlington Liars Club?  Please specify, ALA.

“Gender identity” and “gender expression” are both codified in ALA’s anti-discrimination policies. Both terms have very solid definitions in this context. According to the Human Rights Campaign, gender identity is a “refers to a person’s innate, deeply felt psychological identification as male or female, which may or may not correspond to the person’s body or designated sex at birth (meaning what sex was originally listed on a person’s birth certificate)”. Gender expression “refers to all of the external characteristics and behaviors that are socially defined as either masculine or feminine, such as dress, grooming, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions.” As I mentioned above, I know of several ALA members who experienced discrimination and harassment from conference center staff based on their gender identity/expression and the “proper” restrooms they should be using. Due to a lack of unified and consistent policy, these members were unaware of what group at ALA they should have reported this to, and what actions could and would be taken to rectify the situation.

I do agree that “other group status” is vague and needs clarification. I would welcome working with Will Manley and any other ALA members to clarify and modify the Statement. Like most documents, this is the first iteration and clarification and amendment is always welcome.

This Policy Can Have a Chilling Effect on Intellectual Freedom: The policy states: “Speakers are asked to frame discussions as openly and inclusively as possible and to be aware of how language or images may be perceived by others. ”   This is a very scary requirement.  It sounds an awful lot like…if you offend anyone you can be hauled before the Director of Conference Services and asked to recant.  Shock, satire, and hyperbole are all rhetorical strategies that speakers employ to shake an audience out of normative thinking in order to consider alternative points of view, but shock, satire, and hyperbole can also be very offensive.  I remember going to an ALA conference in the late 60s in which a black power speaker began his talk with the assertion: “Fuck this shit.”  He went on to deliver a great, inspiring message that shook the mostly white audience into a better understanding of his world.  Would that man be arrested by the ALA political correctness police today under this policy? Another effective rhetorical tool is humor.  Good humor is double edged.  It is funny but it also can be quite biting.   Would Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce be arrested by the ALA political correctness police under this policy?  It is a very scary but very real thought.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is a fine line between intellectual freedom/free speech and harassment. The Statement was written not to squelch intellectual freedom and free speech, but to remind Conference attendees that intellectual freedom and free speech are never entirely free.  I cannot yell “FIRE!” in a crowded auditorium and claim free speech as a legal defense. Likewise making statements that are misogynistic, homophobic, racist, sexually charged, and the like may be free speech or fall under intellectual freedom, but are not appropriate behavior at a professional conference. The Statement does not seek to silence hot button issues or controversial topics, but seeks to ensure that discussions of these take place in a professional context.

Ambiguity Reigns in this Policy: Consider this clause from the policy: “…use of sexual imagery or language in the context of a professional discussion might not constitute hostile conduct or harassment.”  A good First Amendment lawyer would have an absolute field day dismantling this wishy washy directive and taking ALA to the bank.  What in heaven’s name does “might not” mean in this case?   ALA is the organization that sued the federal government so that children could have access to pornography on library computers.  This clause (and this whole policy) seems to be completely at odds with ALA’s historic defense of an extreme interpretation of intellectual freedom.

This phrase was taken from other codes of conduct used in other professional conferences. It indicates that there may be discussions or presentation that happen in a professional context, are not harassment or hostile conduct, even if this language or imagery outside of professional context, may be something to be avoided. In my opinion, this clause “gives an out” for intellectual freedom and free speech, if done within a professional context. Obviously you can’t have a discussion on literature related to child abuse survivors without using sexual imagery or language, and this is protected in the Statement, but leaning over to a colleague at a conference and telling him or her your abuse fantasy, is most definitely harassment and hostile conduct.

Where is the Due Process for Violators?: Here’s what the policy says: all violations “will be directed immediately to the Director of Conference Services, who will determine and carry out the appropriate course of action, and who may consult with and engage other ALA staff, leaders, and legal counsel as appropriate.  Event security and local law enforcement may be involved, as appropriate based on the specific circumstances.”  Good grief!  Imagine Howard Stern being arrested by law enforcement at an ALA conference for saying the seven words you cannot say on radio or Chris Rock being arrested for making fun of white people or Sarah Silverman being arrested for ridiculing men.

The spirit of the Statement is not to be the ALA Thought Police. Conference Services will not be placing moles in programs and presentations to guard against violations. That being said, if someone feels they have been harassed, abused, or otherwise made uncomfortable at a conference, this statement directs the member who to contact and provides a sense of how the situation will be evaluated and resolved, all within existing policy.

I am very proud of the Statement and was honored to have worked on its creation and distribution in the Association. I will be the first to admit that it’s not a perfect document, and could use clarification and amendment. I would welcome anyone with suggestions — and critiques — to contact me and I will bring these forward to ALA Council. the Executive Board, and Conference Services and ensure that we make this Statement better.

 

About Matthew Ciszek

Librarian and scholar at Penn State University, diversity advocate, LGBTQ activist, partner to Michael Wachter, parent to a mini schnauzer and all around nice guy!

Posted on December 30, 2013, in Diversity, Librarianship, Profession and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Matthew, thanks for taking the time for addressing my points. Do you honestly see a Richard Pryor or a Lenny Bruce being able to speak at ALA under these guidelines?

    • You’re welcome. Yes, I do see Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, or anyone being able to speak at ALA under these guidelines. First, the guidelines are not new. It’s a restatement of existing policy. Dan Savage was keynote speaker at ALA a few years ago and was very frank and graphic (he’s a sex columnist). But he didn’t call a member out of the audience and make suggestive sexual comments about him or her. Or rub up against them after his keynote. There’s a fine, but well delineated, line between ribald humor and sexual harassment.

  2. Will, why are you more concerned about a theoretical Lenny Bruce than the real people who have experienced harassment at ALA conferences?

    • Because I think you can stop harassment without threatening someone’s free speech. I am concerned with 3 or 4 clauses in the code that seem to limit intellectual freedom. If they could be tweaked I have no problem with the policy.

      • I think the statement is a great beginning. But I do think it needs some clarification regarding free speech. It seems that harassment can be prevented in an atmosphere where being *offended* is clearly permissible. I’ve personally assisted a person who was harassed at an ALA conference. Conference Services couldn’t have been more helpful, but this kind of clarity does seems quite helpful.

      • Yeah, see, I’ve seen this go down before, in the atheist community and in SF fandom. Both communities have developed anti-harassment policies for conventions, and the immediate response in both cases from people who don’t have to worry about harassment was “OMG WHAT ABOUT FREEZE PEACH!!1!”

        It’s nonsense. No one’s peach is being frozen by these guidelines. They haven’t had a chilling effect on speakers at SF conventions or atheist conventions. Indeed, the opposite is true – people at those conventions feel more free because they know they have backup if they get harassed.

        Part of the point of harassment is to put people in their place and establish power. THAT has a chilling effect.

        Also? Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor said offensive things, but they punched up. The kind of harassment we’re talking about here punches down. Key difference.

      • So it matters if you’re punching up or down? Sounds a little subjective.

  3. Nicholas Schiller

    Thank you Matthew.

  4. This was great, Matthew! Thank you for articulating some of these points.

  5. “Why? – ALA has gone over a hundred years without making librarians conform to a conference code of conduct. What were the circumstances that necessitated enacting a code now?”

    The great irony of this is that Melvil Dewey, one of the founders of ALA, was known to practice “social misconduct with women” – as per the Wiegand book, p 301 (which, BTW, tries to excuse his behavior because he was stressed out):
    “… he violated standards of Victorian social conduct by publicly hugging, squeezing and kissing several ALA women… ”

    Wiegand includes that some women who worked with Dewey didn’t seem to mind (?!), but others did. This is sexual harassment plain and simple, both on the job and at professional conferences.

    So the question should be: why did it take a hundred years for the organization to recognize the need to speak out about this kind of behavior?

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