August 15, 2012

Taking a Look at American Atheists' Anti-Harassment Policy

American AtheistsI wrote this post about what should be included in an anti-harassment policy without looking at any of the policies adopted by various atheist groups. I thought it would be interesting to see how close the actual policies were compared with the five components I suggested should be part of an effective policy. Now I'm going to take a look at the Conference Code of Conduct developed by American Atheists and see how it compares.

As a reminder, here were the five things I thought should be included:
  1. A concise definition of what is meant by harassment (i.e., applicable to harassment at large and not only sexual harassment), using behavioral terms if possible.
  2. A clear statement that the behavior described above will not be tolerated at this particular event.
  3. A brief description of what someone should do if they believe they have been a victim of harassment at this event, including who they should inform.
  4. A brief description of the consequences of harassment at the event (i.e., a statement that persons found to have harassed attendees will be dealt with in a particular manner).
  5. Some sort of statement about how false reports will be handled.

In looking at American Atheists' policy, a concise definition of harassment is provided, as are specific examples using behavioral terms (point #1 above).
Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.
While it could be argued that some of this is overly vague, the following section provides some concrete examples of what they are talking about:
Yes means yes; no means no; and maybe means no. Please take no for an answer for any request or activity. You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs (ask first!).
The policy does indeed provide a clear statement that harassment will not be tolerated (point #2 above). In addition, they clearly explain what someone should do if they believe they have been subjected to harassment (point #3 above).
If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff immediately.
As for informing attendees of the consequences of harassment (point #4 above), the statement does that effectively too. In fact, the only point I suggested that was not addressed in American Atheists' code was the last one (i.e., how false reports are handled). Perhaps this is not necessary, but I'd still include a brief statement discouraging false reports/oversensitivity.

I have two minor criticisms of American Atheists' code, and neither prevent it from being a useful document. My first criticism is that the statement itself is not organized particularly well. It is longer than it needs to be, somewhat redundant in a few areas, and not quite as clear as it could be. Minor point that could easily be fixed with some editing. Second, I question the inclusion of religion in the opening sentence:
American Atheists is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.
American Atheists has the reputation for being one of the most assertive of the national atheist groups. The odds of a Christian feeling harassed simply by the content to which he or she would be exposed at such a conference seems high. I'd hate to see conference staff get overwhelmed by an organized effort on the part of some Christian group to attend and then complain about everything. Of course, this would be easy enough to fix if something like that were to happen.