|Anti-Sexual Harassment Graffiti reading: No Touching allowed: Castration Awaits You (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
In this post, I will examine legal definitions of harassment, highlight the key components which appear to distinguish harassment from other objectionable behaviors, and begin to explore some of the most common accusations of harassment in the online atheist community to see what should be labeled as harassment and what should probably not.
Because of the legal implications of harassment, I believe it makes sense to begin by examining how the law defines harassment. I am not suggesting that we must restrict ourselves to a legal definition, but it at least gives us a place to start.
According to USLegal.com, legal definitions of harassment vary from state to state but it "is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety." They go on to explain:
Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. Harassing behavior may include, but is not limited to, epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.Having taken a close look at this definition, as well as some of the state-specific examples provided on the same page, a few shared features of the various definitions emerge. On this basis, I'd like to suggest that the following areas of overlap be considered relevant for any definition of harassment:
- Harassment involves repeated, unsolicited behavior in which the target is demeaned, threatened, or offended in such a manner that a hostile environment is created for the target.
- Harassment can involve speech (e.g., threatening statements, derogatory cartoons) as well as observable behavior (e.g., touching, physical interference with someone's movement).
- Legal definitions of harassment emphasize the intent of the harasser. One of the ways they do this is by considering whether the behavior of the harasser could have served any other purpose besides the deliberate annoyance of the target. This appears to be particularly important when the behavior involves something other than a face-to-face interaction.
- Legal definitions appear to exclude the offending of hypersensitive individuals by applying the reasonable person standard. That is, harassment is often described as behavior that would place a reasonable person in fear of physical injury or that would be extremely annoying or offensive to a reasonable person.
Behavior That is Clearly NOT Harassment
Some of the behavior I have seen being labeled as harassment that does not appear to warrant the label, no matter how objectionable it may be, includes the following:
- Using the #FtBullies hashtag on Twitter.
- Expressing disagreement with someone's position, no matter how cherished that opinion might be (e.g., one's religious beliefs or one's preferred brand of feminism).
- Wearing clothing with social or political messages, including those that are critical of a particular group, to a conference.
- Wearing "fake jewelry" to a conference.
- Inserting yourself into someone else's conversation and making absurd accusations against them.
- Using mockery or satire in one's work to lampoon public figures, call attention to relevant issues in the community, etc.
- Defending oneself against public criticism from others.
- Critiquing someone else's public work (e.g., writing a book review).
- Calling someone a misogynist because they had the nerve to disagree with Rebecca Watson.
- Running a silly parody account on Twitter.
- Accurately quoting someone.
- Making silly images to mock someone.
- Belonging to an Internet forum.
Unfortunately, there have been some examples of behavior that would appear to meet most definitions of harassment. They include things like the following:
- Threatening someone with physical harm.
- Disseminating private information (or threatening to do so) about an individual without his or her consent for the purpose of harming the career or reputation of the target (this is sometimes referred to as doc dropping or doxing).
- Repeatedly initiating contact with an individual who has made a reasonable request not to be contacted (and who is not continuing to initiate contact with you).
- Repeatedly posting information that is intended to cause harm or distress to the target and inciting others to do the same.
- Following someone around at a conference and repeatedly touching them.
Not surprisingly, there are some behaviors that could be harassment in some circumstances but not others. A couple examples include:
- Filing a DMCA complaint against someone instead of first requesting a takedown of the material in question. As a one-time occurrence, this is probably not harassment. Were it to become a pattern, it might be deserving of the label.
- Ridiculing someone on Twitter. It may not be pretty, but it probably isn't harassment unless it continues long after the offender has been asked to stop, blocked, etc.
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