Friday, January 3, 2014

American Library Association prohibits harassment

On the website for its Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits in January 2014, the American Library Association displays a Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences.

As a survivor of childhood peer abuse who frequently blogs about bullying, I applaud the ALA for adopting an anti-harassment policy. And while it’s not a perfect document, I disagree with Will Manley, an American Libraries columnist who argues on his blog that the policy could “have a chilling effect on intellectual freedom.”

I think the policy sufficiently makes clear that “critical examination of beliefs and viewpoints does not, by itself, constitute hostile conduct or harassment. Similarly, use of sexual imagery or language in the context of a professional discussion might not constitute hostile conduct or harassment.”

Instead, the policy very specifically prohibits:
  1. Harassment or intimidation based upon group status.
  2. Sexual harassment or intimidation including unwanted sexual attention, stalking or unsolicited physical contact.
  3. Yelling at or verbally or physically threatening speakers.
I fail to see how prohibiting these behaviors is suppression of intellectual freedom.

A person can hold an unpopular view. He or she may not harass (or be the target of harassment by) people with whom he or she is in disagreement. If anything, the holders of unconventional opinions are protected by a Code of Conduct.

I want to think that library professionals are beyond workplace bullying or harassment, but I don’t believe that any occupation is immune from such vices. I think the ALA has a valid concern about explicitly prohibiting harassment.

Bullying is a behavior that is not confined to childhood.

Like I said, the statement isn’t perfect. I would personally omit a reference to exercising “the law of two feet.” For one thing, the phrase sounds ableist.

(I recently took a survey that asked people with disabilities if they had experienced “microagressions” in their place of worship. “Law of two feet” seems very like the unconscious ableist language, the unintended slights or questions founded on untrue assumptions that the survey brought to my attention.)

For another thing, in an online discussion about the policy, no one seemed to know what the expression meant.

I interpreted “the law of two feet” to refer to my ability to leave presentations I found offensive. But when I looked online for more information about the expression’s origin, I found that Jonathan Opp at OpenSource.com understands it very differently: that if you’re not contributing nor adding value to a meeting, find someplace else where you can.

So you end up with one expression with potentially different meanings for every single person exposed to it. And I think any policy that attempts to define behavior should use language that is as clear as possible.

If Mr. Manley can suggest how the Code of Conduct can more clearly define unacceptable behavior, I believe his insight would be valuable. He frequently makes very good points in his American Libraries commentary. But Manley is off the mark when he characterizes the policy as suppression of free speech.

Update: The contents of Will Manley’s blog were recently marked private by its author. A third-party capture can be found on Evernote.com.