American Atheists fails to enforce conference policy

During the last few months, heated discussion throughout the blogosphere eventually lead various atheistic and skeptic organizations — American Atheists being one of the first — to adopt various conference policies including codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies which, on some accounts, were required for people — particularly women — to feel safe at conferences.

Opponents and critics of conduct policies argue that conduct policies provide a false sense of security, infantalize adults, and create a culture of fear at conferences (in addition to the false narrative that the atheist and skeptic communities are hostile, unwelcoming, and unsafe places for women from many of the same people who support such policies).

American Atheists’ “Harassment Policy for Conventions and Conferences,” put in place on June 26 2012, “provides direction for American Atheists’ staff and volunteers who will take reports of harassment and inappropriate conduct” and lets people “know there will be consequences for harmful behaviors.” What are some instances of “inappropriate conduct” and/or “harmful behaviors” within the policy which notes “We expect participants to follow this code of conduct at all conference venues and conference-related social events?”

The conference policy states, “Please respect the sessions and the speakers. Turn off cell phones and other electronic devices…”

This is very interesting considering that pictures taken — by cell phones and electronic devices — are scattered throughout the aacon13 hashtag on Twitter which is monitored by an American Atheists account which frequents the hashtag. Flash photography, no doubt, can also be seen in the conference hall. Here are just same examples of pictures taken during conference sessions. More can be found on the aacon13 hashtag.

If conference policies stipulate rules for conduct at conferences, attendees do not follow these rules, and conference staff do not enforce the rules when they are so clearly violated, what can be said of the conference policies?

Perhaps the conference policy were poorly written and it ‘does not really mean’ people can take pictures? Tough. The policy should be understood as it is written; cell phones and electronic devices should be turned off during conference sessions. Apparently, American Atheists does not care to enforce their own policies and rules even though some of the most fervent proponents of conference policies — including David Silverman, President of American Atheists, one of the first to implement such a policy — are in attendance. Can we really take such policies and organizations seriously if people will not even enforce the most minor of provisions set forth in conduct policies?

Do I personally care about whether people take pictures at conferences? I don’t, but I can’t help but point out the hypocrisy on behalf of American Atheists — an organization which implemented its own conference policy — to fail to enforce its own policy even though it was apparently so necessary to have this policy to begin with. I’m simply holding American Atheists to their own standards they imposed on themselves following the implementation of their conference policy.

The conference policies are so necessary, but conference staff apparently does not care to enforce the policies when the rules are violated not only once, but time and time again as evidenced by the Twitter feed, at ‘The Atheist Experiece’ blog on Freethought Blogs [frozen page], and elsewhere. Once again, conference policies are shown to be a joke and, as it seems, public posturing. What’s the point of a conduct policy if not all of its provisions are enforced?

Update: American Atheists has responded – further showing their lack of enforcement of its conference policy and either misunderstanding of what the policy actually says or their willingness to change a written policy mid-stream:

The policy clearly says “Turn off cell phones and other electronic devices.” As Karla Porter notes in the comments, “The fact remains, conference policies are an ineffective means of conduct policing.” American Atheists does inadvertently make a good point, though. The conference policy would also forbid live-Tweeting because electronic devices and cell phones are to be turned off…and there is certainly much live-Tweeting going on. It’s time to scrap the poorly thought out policy altogether or do a rewrite.

Update 2: Greta Christina is also allegedly masquerading as a member of Pussy Riot alongside, if not holding, a sign that says “Fuck the Pope.” I wonder what reaction there would be if the sign said “Fuck [insert conference speaker name here].”

So much for

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.”


Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • It’s possible conference organizers did not realize these rogue pics were taken. It would be interesting to learn if the offenders were in anyway admonished for their inoffensive yet belligerent transgressions once they were posted to Twitter and came to con organizers’ attention. Perhaps they were quietly spoken to, or even evicted. Have you reached out to any of them to see the outcome? The fact remains, conference policies are an ineffective means of conduct policing.

    • The hashtag is frequented by an American Atheists account and the pictures continue rolling in. They’ve noticed…and they no doubt see the flash photography.

      • I doubt any of them have really considered the counter-productivity of their policy as it is worded. Sharing photos and other electronic communications about social events such as these is actually *crucial* to the livelihood and success of them in the long run. The more socially connected they are, the better. It’s human nature. Rather like sexuality.

      • NEPA BlogCon will have no such policy and I hope the Internet lights up with pics – it’s great free marketing.

        • This is great to hear. There was no need for such a policy in 2012 and there won’t be a need for one in 2013.

    • “ineffective means of conduct policing” indeed.

  • While the specific case of turning off electronic devices is trivial, I think the important thing to focus on is the difficulty of applying copy/paste policies which lack foresight, because they *were not thoroughly discussed* and hashed out, but put together out of fear of offending people who seem to get off on being offended. These being the same people who vehemently opposed open discussion of said policies in the first place.

    Policies are fine *if* they are realistic and based on solid evidence-based reasoning, not a reactionary appeal to emotion.

    • RussellBlackford

      Exactly – there are many good reasons to have well-targeted conduct policies. I’m not sure how many people oppose them altogether. I know I don’t, although I’ve been falsely accused of it. The point is to have sensible policies that only stop obnoxious or unreasonable behaviour. Additionally, it is sometimes needed to require certain behaviour insisted upon by insurers (which can have their own, sometimes stupid, ideas of safety requirements) or the hotel, or for reasons relating to protection of intellectual property.

      Policies such as that of the American Atheists were put into place with a false sense of urgency, based on dubious anecdotes (like Monopod Man), and without proper consultation. As a result, they have ended up being overreaching and/or badly drafted. As a further consequence, they are not being applied literally, just as I suggested would probably happen. For which I get to be Witch of the Week from time to time. Go figure. Somehow I get to be the bad guy in this whole debate, according to the Freethought Bullies crowd, for bringing common sense and legal experience.

  • Ronlawhouston

    You know Justin… I don’t know that pointing out trivial violations of an otherwise trivial conference policy really makes the point of how these trivial policies trivialize conference attending adults. (Did I get the world record for using variations of trivial in a sentence?)

    Clearly there are very highly valid reasons for banning cell phones. Hell, you could turn it upside down – Velcro it to your shoe and shoot pictures up women’s skirts (or men wearing kilts for that matter.) Clearly, cell phones make women and men wearing kilts feel highly unwelcome and subject to constant harassment.

    Please join me in establishing policies that make men in kilts feel safe and welcome.

  • Chill Chick

    As a friend of mine said, the ideal conference policy would just say “Act like a grown-up and we’ll treat you like one.”

    • I agree. There conference policies, though, do not do that :

  • RussellBlackford

    Justin, I’ve just found that one of your links has me as an opponent of conduct policies. Could you please remove that link? I am not an opponent of conduct policies. I am an opponent of poorly drafted conduct policies, conduct policies that overreach and ban non-harassing and sometimes even beneficial behaviour, the hasty and non-consultative drafting of conduct policies (motivated by a false sense of urgency, accompanied by moral panic based on dubious anecdotes), and various specific provisions that appear in various conduct policies.

    I am against proposals for Talibanesque policies that would say who can have sex with whom, would be accompanied by secret blacklists of individuals who are considered creepy or sexist, or which try to stamp out sexual images and/or reasonable sexual language (including flirting and sexual banter), or seek to control how people express themselves in how they dress, etc., etc. I object to specific things that a bad practice with conduct policies. I do consider the American Atheists policy in its current form to be pretty damn Talibanesque.

    But I’m not opposed to conduct policies as such. I think they may, on balance, do some good if they are well-drafted and narrowly targeted at obnoxious behaviour and other behaviour that it is reasonable to prohibit in the circumstances (perhaps, for example, because of some requirement imposed by an insurer). Some obnoxious behaviour does take place at conventions, usually fuelled by alcohol, and I have nothing against a policy on how it will be dealt with and what the consequences can be (e.g. cancelling the individual’s convention membership without a refund).

    In particular, I have nothing against the conduct policy adopted by the CFI last year, at least as supplemented by the lengthy explanation given by Ron Lindsay as to how it will be interpreted and applied. I’ve said this in the past, though perhaps not anywhere terribly prominent. So perhaps it’s worth saying again.

    But will people on both sides of the rift please stop saying that I am opposed to conduct policies as such? I am happy with well-drafted, narrowly targeted, sensibly administered policies that are produced after due consultation (including with people who have relevant legal or HR experience) and with no false sense of urgency. By and large, the CFI policy falls into that category.

    • RussellBlackford

      Or if you want to retain the link, just change “opponents” to “opponents and critics” and link to me from the word “critics”. That would be a fair representation.

  • Judes

    As a female, I feel safer with a conduct policy even though it is just words on paper and here is why: When AA talks about rules of conduct it says to me that an AA convention will notice and talk openly about harassing behavior. People will be held accountable.

    Someone going to a convention needs to know whether they can feel safe. By AA adressing what  exceptable behavior is ahead of time, they create an environement that informs potential perpetrators that it is not a place where innapropriate behavior gets swept under the rug. It isn’t a shield to protect women – it is even more powerful. Iit lays the foundation for a safe, equal, respectful environment. It is much appreciated. Resentful 

  • blondeintokyo

    This post is pretty badly thought out. To me, it looks like Justin read the policy, thought it was being violated, tried to clarify with AA what it meant, and then attacked their response as “wrong”. How can they be wrong about their own policy? If you think it’s *worded badly* that’s one thing, but that isn’t the point of this blog post. In fact, I can’t quite tell what the point of this post is.

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  • Kaikoth

    Any valid points in this post are completely negated by the author’s intentional “misunderstanding” of the cell phone part of policy. Obviously, the letter and intent of the cell phone policy is to keep attendees from interrupting the speakers with ringing phones. Choosing to critique this policy with a made-up non-issue doesn’t positively reflect on the author’s credibility and any real critique of the police or the need for the policy is lost.

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