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 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.