Codes of Conduct and Censorship in Technical Communities

Over the past several months I’ve been thinking a lot about anti-harassment policies, codes of conduct, when censorship is harmful and when it is appropriate. During this time I’ve seen a number of comments about how codes of conduct simply aren’t necessary, how they will be used as instruments of unnecessary censorship, and how some people have been bullied into adopting them.

You know what? I’m rather tired of seeing these comments over and over again and of having to argue that it’s necessary for communities to adopt a code of conduct.

Being open, welcoming and safe to all, including gender, sexual and racial minorities, is not the default state of our technical communities (particularly in open source). This is a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. And, it’s one that people continue to dispute despite overwhelming evidence. All one has to do is to look at the dearth of members from minority populations who participate in open source. Or head over to Geek Feminism and read through the list of incidents.

If communities want to change the status quo they need to be proactive. One way of doing that is to adopt a policy outlining expected conduct.

We decided to adopt such a policy for this year’s Open Source Bridge. It’s something we put considerable effort towards. We created a draft, revised it several times, shared it with a range of community members and revised it again. We made sure to publish it prior to our CFP close so all prospective speakers would know what we expected of all participants.

In the process of writing the code of conduct we realized the following was important to us:

  • emphasize the positive as well as negative behavior, focusing on the idea of open source citizenship
  • give organizers the flexibility to deal with situations according to their best judgement
  • emphasize the grassroots nature of open source bridge by having the same policy apply to everyone involved (speakers, attendees, etc.)
  • give participants a sense of agency around their experience at the conference

Focus on Citizenship

As we discussed what sort of policy to adopt it became clear to us the we wanted something more than an anti-harassment policy. Having zero-tolerance for harassing behavior at conferences is of course important, but we realized that we wanted more than just an explicit catalog of prohibited actions. We wanted a document that emphasized the idea of open source citizenship. We wanted to focus on recognizing positive as well as negative behavior.

Give Organizers Flexibility

We also wanted the document to be flexible enough to allow organizers to utilize their best judgement in dealing with situations. We didn’t want to create a situation where we had to deal with behavior that is clearly problematic but that we failed to identify and elucidate ahead of time in our code of conduct. We knew we couldn’t list everything that could potentially go wrong. Along those same lines, we didn’t want to be in the position of having to kick someone out of the conference for less problematic or correctable behavior or for violating our code of conduct simply because we were unskillful in our wording.

Highlight our Grassroots Effort

Open Source Bridge is a grassroots event, organized entirely with volunteers. It’s important to me that those who are involved with our event: the speakers, the attendees, the participants and volunteers know how important they are in making OSBridge a successful event. Each of those roles is just as important as the other and we wanted this equality to be clear in our code of conduct. This is why we have one code of conduct that it applies to everyone. Each person has the same set of responsibilities to make OSBridge a positive event for all involved, including themselves.

Empower our Participants

We wanted participants to feel that our code of conduct gave them a sense of agency and empowerment about their experience. Don’t like something you see? You have a right and a responsibility to say something about it. Don’t like how your colleague is being treated? Let us know. We wanted to encourage folks to come talk to us about any issues that arose and included very clear way to contact us to do so.

The Result

The end result is something I’m very proud of and I think time will demonstrate it is has made our entire community better for everyone (not just previously marginalized groups). We even created a generic version, the Citizen Code of Conduct that we’ve made available for others communities to adopt and adapt as needed to meet their specific needs.

Is it perfect? No, it’s not. We’ve already identified somethings we want to make better. We want to want to clarify what we mean about participating actively and authentically. We also want to add something about contacting organizers to resolve any questions participants may have about their content/behavior being objectionable.

The code of conduct is a work in progress and we’ll keep iterating on it as we get feedback from our community.

On Censorship and Freedom of Expression

So now that we’ve adopted a code of conduct, does that mean that we’re going to use it to arbitrarily censor ideas and people we don’t like from the community? No, it doesn’t. I think if we started to engage in this sort of abuse people we would be called to task about it by our community.

Having a code of conduct does, however, mean that we’re going to take seriously and investigate any reports we receive of content and/or behavior that violates it. And, yes, since we don’t have a list of explicit rules, we’ll use our best judgement to determine how to handles any incidents that arise. This is no different than every other decision you already trust us with when you decide to participate in the conference.

Not everyone will agree with the calls that we make, and I’m okay with that. I’m also okay with using our power as conference organizers to potentially censor content or behavior that is harmful to a subset of our community.

I’ll say it again in another way: I don’t believe that censorship is in and of itself a bad thing because freedom of expression is not an unlimited right. From Wikipedia: “the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country and the right is commonly subject to limitations, such as on libel, slander, obscenity, incitement to commit a crime, etc.”

Yes, censorship has been using by those in power for hundreds of years as tools of oppression and tyranny. But censorship also prevents harm from being done to vulnerable populations.

We censor children’s access to pornography so that they have less of a chance to witness sexual material before they are ready for it. We censor hate speech. We censor certain incitements to violence and crime. We (hopefully) self-censor too, for a lot of good reasons: so that we don’t hit our kids or tell our co-workers to go fuck themselves when we’re having a bad day.

Part of being a mature and responsible adult is knowing when freedom of expression should be limited and censorship is appropriate, and when it is an abuse of power wielded for selfish means or ulterior motives.

As conference organizers we hold that our participant’s right of expression carries with it certain responsibilities. We therefore we ask everyone to abide by a code of conduct and reserve the right to enforce certain restrictions on speech and expression if it becomes necessary.

Moreover, there is a huge difference between government censoring disagreements, which is what protections around free speech are really about, and a community deciding standards are required for participation. The latter is what we’re doing with our code of conduct.

Will some feel disenfranchised?

I recognize that some feel disenfranchised when communities adopt a code of conducts.

They are unwilling to accept that codes of conduct are unnecessary. They take it personally and resent being told how to act like a grown up. They think themselves feminists and above scrutiny. They think there’s nothing wrong with including overtly sexualized material in a technical presentation. They think it’s perfectly okay to name a software package “upskirt” or “pantyshot.” They say we’ve taken political correctness too far and by doing so have removed all fun out of going to conferences. They claim we engage in witch hunts against perfectly respectable members of our community.

And everyone is entitled to their thoughts and opinions.

And we are entitled as a community to exclude a few in order to welcome the many that have been marginalized time and time again.

So, if you feel excluded by our code of conduct, I encourage you to examine your own privilege and behavior and see if you can’t open your heart to what we’re trying to do.

9 comments

  1. Josh Berkus

    I support the OSB code of conduct, as you probably know.

    However, I think you are being a bit confrontational with people who have difficulties with the code of conduct. Yes, there are chauvenist (and other -ist) assholes out there who will complain, and if those people are unhappy, that’s fine.

    But there are also regular folks who will read the language of the CoC as saying something different from what you intended. There are also people who have never personally witnessed discrimination and inappropriate behavior at OSS events, and don’t understand why CoCs are necessary. You don’t help persuade those folks by lumping them together with the assholes in your blog post.

    I appreciate your exasperation, but please remember that we win by persuading people to behave better … not by telling them they’re evil. OSB has done a great job of persuading in the CoC; please do the same in your blog.

    • Christie Koehler

      @Josh +1 to what Tim says.

      At no point in my post did I call any group of people “assholes” or “evil.” Moreover, the last section of my post does not refer to people who are simply uninformed about this issues. It refers those who have been presented with ample evidence that harassment occurs yet continue to deny it exists or is a problem.

  2. Tim Chevalier

    Josh: I believe your comment fits the definition of concern trolling. If that’s different from what you intended, I suggest sticking to your own opinions in the future and not trying to speak for hypothetical, possibly nonexistent “regular folks”.

  3. pudge

    I recognize what you are trying to do. And I applaud it, for the most part. But I logically cannot wrap my head around the notion that a code of conduct is “necessary.”

    This seems simple to me: if someone is acting inappropriately, conference organizers pull them aside and ask them to stop. If they continue, they are removed. There’s nothing you need a “CoC” for.

    I could go on about how I disagree with you on some major points: such as, I have never seen an example of how censorship of ideas has ever prevented harm being done to any vulnerable (adult) population. Children are a special case; I think censoring hate speech is wrong (and in the U.S., usually unconstitutional) and solves no problem; and we actually don’t “censor” incitement, as incitement is an act distinct from the speech used as the medium of the incitement.

    Plus, I could point out that none of this has anything whatsoever to do with a tech conference, because that is all about government force, which actually then brings me back to agreement with you: there’s nothing wrong with a tech conference, or ANY private group in a private place, saying what must, or cannot, be expressed. If OSCON wants me to pledge fealty to the Nazi Party in order to attend, that’s their right, and it’s my right to not attend.

    But it’s so much simpler than this: all OSCON needs to say is, “be respectful of other conference attendees” and “O’Reilly reserves the right to ask anyone to leave for conduct that, in O’Reilly’s judgment, is contrary to purpose of the conference and the best interests of the attendees.”

    That’s it. Why do we need more? Your “CoC” is far too specific and far too limiting. You can’t come up with everything, so why bother trying? And even what’s said in those two sentences is unnecessary: they simply serve as a reminder. And why is anything more than that needed?

    I have a real philosophical problem with breaking out your preferred protected classes of people for protection. I’m a Christian and a Republican; is someone allowed to use offensive verbal comments about Republicans, or are the only excluded from doing so about Christians?

    Again: why not just say to “be respectful”? Nothing you write in the “CoC” isn’t covered by that. What are you trying to accomplish beyond that simple phrase? Is it to put pressure on the conference organizers to enforce it, rather than to give them the tools to do so? Or is it to push an agenda that specific classes of people should be protected? Or is it because like many tech people (myself included), you have a tendency toward overengineering? Or is it that you just don’t think much of the participants, that “be respectful” isn’t clear enough?

    I am not implying an answer; I honestly don’t have any idea. I tend to think it’s probably the penultimate answer, because I see tech people overengineering things just about every day.

    • Christie Koehler

      @Pudge — It’s not enough for organizer’s to say “be respectful” since everyone has a different idea of what respectful behavior is. We find that as organizers it is useful to have a policy that we can reference when dealing with issues. Furthermore, the code of conduct sends a clear message that inappropriate behavior won’t be tolerate and will be dealt with accordingly. This makes members of vulnerable groups feel safer and more willing to attend. We created a code of conduct because it was something members of our community said they needed and we agreed.

      The code of conduct doesn’t currently included political views and maybe it should.

      • pudge

        Christie, I think it is more than enough to say “be respectful” (that is, I don’t think it needs to be said). “Be respectful” means to consider how your words and actions will be perceived by others, and what impact you will have on them, and if someone is incapable of doing that, then they should be warned, then removed.

        As to sending a clear message, that is done through the statement I offered (that the organizers reserve the right to remove people), combined with a demonstrated willingness to follow through. That’s what’s most important, I think, and what’s been missing: the organizers actually taking action when it’s necessary. This includes the people who select the talks (and I’ve been on that end of it for OSCON), and the people during the conference: they need to step in when something is inappropriate, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done during the conference, and (in years past) I saw many people allow talks to get through I thought were inappropriate.

        If we just have a statement that respectfulness is required, and lack of it enforced, I think that’s enough. Whether some people “feel” they need more isn’t really evidence, to me, that we do need more. By that standard, we should do anything that any community “feels” they need.

        Lastly, I don’t think the “CoC” should include political views: I think picking and choosing which characteristics about people that we will deem “protected” is entirely wrongheaded. You can always add more to it, but in the meantime, those things you might want to add later will be “unprotected.” Better to not enumerate them in the first place, IMO, even if we are to have a “CoC.” For example, say: “[YOUR ORGANIZATION] believes our community should be truly open for everyone. As such, we are committed to providing a friendly, safe and welcoming environment for all people, regardless of personal characteristics.”

        Even more obviously (to me), how about, instead of: “Harassment includes: offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability …”, just having “Harassment includes: offensive verbal comments …”?

        • Tim Chevalier

          Pudge: like Christie said in her original post, a policy is for people who don’t already know how to be respectful. So it’s not helpful to just say “be respectful”.

          As for your last paragraph, it’s necessary to enumerate gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, and maybe other traits because when we *don’t* enumerate them, lots of people believe it’s okay to harass women, trans people, queer people, people of color, non-Christian people (or possibly, in tech circles, people who have any serious religious views whatsoever), and disabled people. We don’t live in a world where when we say “respect”, we can afford to assume that our audience knows we mean to include all of the people in all of those groups. So we have to make it clear.

  4. Joe

    Most codes of conduct forget to take out the biggest problem. Take the booze away and a lot of problems disappear. Many people treat conferences like its spring break, and many conferences are happy to oblige.

    • Christie Koehler

      @Joe – I agree with you that alcohol consumption/availability is an issue at tech conference. We had considered putting a line in about mindful alcohol consumption, but it wasn’t quite working. Plus, I think organizers, attendees and sponsors need to have this mindfulness. We have been asked to provide activities that are less alcohol-focused, and we’ve been brainstorming how to do this. At times it feels like no sponsor on earth would want to throw a dry party.

      I think OSCON actually did a better job of that this year in that one of their main evening activities was a carnival (there was alcohol, but it wasn’t the main focus).