Fisking Another Harassment Policy

Last year I critiqued the Skepticon harassment policy after its shortcomings became obvious after a gun incident. Well, another skeptic conference aimed at the same age group (my impression), Skeptech has a harassment policy that shows some learning from the Skepticon mistakes. I figured I’d give this one a critique to see how much was learned.

You can read the full harassment policy here:

It starts off with this:

SkepTech is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.

While I understand why it’s done, I disagree with listing as many buckets as you can think of. Firstly it’s divisive, and secondly you always leave something out. I did not see anything about a person’s politics. I don’t know how my veganism would fit in, if I was being taunted by meat eaters.

We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks. Conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference without a refund at the discretion of the conference organizers.

Not sure why “sexual language and imagery” is mentioned here. It’s both narrow in it’s scope and imprecise as to what it really covers.

Now we get to defining harassment.

Harassment includes, but may not be limited to, verbal comments targeting someone based on race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender presentation, language ability, immigration status, or religious affiliation; sexual images in public spaces; deliberate intimidation; stalking; following; harassing photography or recording; sustained disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; and non-consensual sexual attention or abuse.

This part isn’t terrible overall. It does try to play disadvantaged group bingo here, though, which again always leaves groups up. No mention of someone’s politics or lifestyle choices like perhaps veganism or living child-free. It is also a pet peeve of mine to see policies define harassment as harassing photography. You need to define harassing photography because I don’t think it’s necessarily that obvious when you’re in a public space like a conference.

Discussions or images related to sex, pornography, discriminatory language, or similar is welcome in presentations and panel discussions if it meets all of the following criteria: (a) the organizers have specifically granted permission in writing, (b) it is necessary to the topic of discussion and no alternative exists, (c) it is presented in a respectful manner, especially towards those who identify as women and LGBTQIA, (d) attendees are warned in advance in the program and respectfully given ample warning and opportunity to leave beforehand. This exception specifically does not allow use of gratuitous sexual images as attention-getting devices or unnecessary examples.

Now we move into more problematic areas. There is some conflict here and previous paragraphs. In a previous paragraph it’s stated “Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.” But this paragraph says it’s okay if you get a permission slip. For some reason, women and LGBTQIA are given special prominence. If I assume that “discriminatory language” also includes racial language, classist language, etc, then I don’t understand “especially towards those who identify as women and LGBTQIA” is given a shout out here over other groups.

Section d) then strays into even more problematic areas: “attendees are warned in advance in the program and respectfully given ample warning and opportunity to leave beforehand.” We’re not talking about real harassment here. Now we’re protecting people from uncomfortable things. The equivocation of this with harassment is a huge problem. This is not a harassment policy at this point. This is a content guidelines policy. If we expand the concept of harassment to the exposure of ideas one finds unpleasant, we destroy civil discourse. Okay, maybe that is being a little over the top, but teaching young people to live in hermetically sealed ideological pods makes for weaker minds. In the setting of a college, this harassment policy is teaching some wrong things.

Now we move into the improvements:

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. Conference staff can be identified by badges with the word “STAFF” on them. Alternative methods of contacting staff can be found under the contact page of

Conference staff will be available to help participants contact hotel/venue security, local law enforcement, provide escorts to and from the venue, or otherwise assist those feeling unsafe for the duration of the conference. We value your participation.

At this point in time, please send all questions and concerns to

Local Resources:

Minneapolis Police Department

911 (emergency) and 612-692-TIPS [8477] (anonymous tip line)

Local Sexual Assault Hotline: Aurora Center at University of Minnesota

612-626-9111 (helpline operates 24/7, 365 days per year)

Medical: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Fairview Medical Center

Local Taxi Service: (612-788-8888)

This is what a harassment policy needs to contain. People who aren’t local would find this information useful. People are told staff will be clearly marked. This is what I would expect in every policy. Identify the process, and show that the conference has done some prep to deal with issues that arise.

So overall, I think this policy has partly been improved and has learned from the lessons of the Skepticon policy. Still, though, it retains a lot of the problems with imprecise language, disadvantaged group bingo, and an attempt to mix harassment with content guidelines. I feel strongly that the two should be separate if they are both needed. I think it’s dangerous to mix the two.

I didn’t write this out of cynicism or to mock conferences that include harassment policies. It’s good for conference goers to know what to do if they have a problem. I just want them to be good policies and not soapboxes.

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