Philcon’s Unclear Policy Page

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.

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October 31, 2013

A few weeks ago I looked at Philcon‘s webpage in order to familiarize myself with their harassment policy prior to the convention. When I couldn’t find one, I tweeted about it:

I want Philcon to do well–it is my local convention and it has a long and storied history. I know that running a convention is a tremendous amount of work and that the Philcon organizers work very hard to make it the best convention they possibly can. So I want to be charitable. I want it to be a success and for everyone to have a wonderful time. I really, really, really do.

The other night, I checked the website again and discovered it had been updated and that there was now a policies page (screencap)–hurray! And then I read it. Not so hurray after all.

Be respectful towards others at all times. This includes the membership, participants, volunteers, staff and committee of Philcon, the staff of the hotel and everyone else you may encounter.

Philcon is a venue dedicated to the expression and free exchange of ideas for the purposes of critical examination, discussion, and consideration. The personal views of Philcon’s individual staff, program participants, or members are not necessarily those of the Philcon conference committee, and our dedication to the free expression of those ideas should not be considered endorsement. Please be accepting of the fact that other people are also free to disagree with you.

If someone does not want to engage in a personal conversation with you, do not try to start or continue such a conversation. If someone does not want to pursue a personal relationship with you, do not try to start or continue such a relationship. Such behavior may be considered harassment, and will be considered inappropriate and dealt with as such.

This is worrisome. There are 73 words devoted to an explanation that the convention is a place where there is a free exchange of ideas and that not everyone is going to agree with each other. There are 61 words devoted to harassment and the consequences thereof–with no discussion of the process by which complaints or concerns or reports of assault will be handled. There’s also just enough give in the phrasing for a reported incident to be dismissed as a she said/he said situation–“may be considered harassment”. They’re not defining their terms and they’re qualifying them in a way that doesn’t sit right with me.

Also troubling is that they have taken the time and effort to create a fairly comprehensive weapons policy (they have a Masquerade and some costumes come with weapons, so this makes sense for them to have):

Weapons and weapon-shaped objects are prohibited: guns, gun replicas, knives, lasers, model lasers, paint ball or splatter guns, as well as anything that could be perceived as a weapon by the public and law enforcement authorities.

Laser target designators and laser pointers are prohibited in the Conference Areas (with the exception of laser pointers used by guest speakers as part of a presentation).

The sole and partial exception to the Weapons Policy applies to registered participants in the Masquerade. With the permission of the Masquerade Director, participants in the Masquerade may wear a weapon (excepting operational guns and functional lasers) from 30 minutes before to 30 minutes after the Masquerade, outside the Masquerade area, but only if affixed to the costume. Participants may manipulate weapons (draw, brandish, gesticulate, but not discharge) as part of their onstage performance, but at no other time.

The Committee shall have the final say on what constitutes a weapon or improper conduct.

157 words telling people that they can’t bring weapons or weapon-shaped objects into the convention except for a small window of time before, during, and after the Masquerade.

61 words about harassment in a very general sense.

So what about reporting harassment or other types of misconduct?

If you feel that someone is engaging in misconduct or a violation of these rules, we suggest the following:

If you feel comfortable doing so, point out the inappropriate behavior to the person(s) involved. Often this will resolve the problem immediately.

If you do not feel comfortable talking to the person(s) or if talking with them does not resolve the problem, please report the situation immediately to the Operations office. Please try to provide a name, badge name/number and/or a physical description of the person(s) involved. We need to know about any incident as soon as possible during Philcon in order to take appropriate action.

If you need help locating the Operations office, please ask any Philcon committee or staff member.

So the very first suggestion is that an attendee confront someone who is behaving badly–but only if they feel comfortable doing so. If you don’t feel comfortable, then you need to be able to thoroughly identify or describe the person so something can be done–but who knows what will be done.

Per the policy, there are a range of actions that they can choose to take:

Philcon reserves the right to take any action in response to misconduct or violations of the Philcon Rules, Hotel Rules of violations of law that Philcon deems appropriate under the facts and circumstances. This includes, but is not limited to, talking with the parties involved, attempting to mediate a solution, issuing verbal warnings, revoking memberships and directing person to leave the conference areas, involving Hotel staff or security, contacting law enforcement or choosing not to take action.

There seems to be a lot of wiggle room here that someone accused of misconduct or harassment could use to their advantage but in the meantime, the person who has reported or attempted to report misconduct or harassment is given no support in the policy whatsoever and, in fact, may be forced to further interact with someone who has behaved badly towards them if the committee member or volunteer has decided that mediation is the best way to go.

I am assuming that someone who takes the time to report an incident is telling the truth. The reason I make this assumption is that there are so many barriers in place to discourage people from reporting–policies such as this one are, in fact, a kind of discouragement.

I understand if the committee as a whole doesn’t want to take on this job–it’s a big job!–but they should have designated safety or security personnel and how to contact those people should be clearly communicated to everyone involved with the convention. As it stands, this policy indicates that one should locate a committee member or volunteer (how can we know them? will they have special badges or ribbons?) or go to the Operations office (where is the Operations office? what are its hours?).

This annoys me. And considering the conversations we’ve been having on this subject for the last 16 months or so, I felt like something needs to be said.

My first inclination was to figure out who to contact on the convention committee (while yelling into the Twitter void a bit more as one does). I went to the contact page (screencap) and discovered that it’s pretty bare bones. There’s a handful of email addresses and what subjects the owners of those email addresses are likely to be willing to address–general information, registration, website, programming, art show. The chair’s email address is listed as well, but with this caveat: “for issues that really must be addressed by the Chair of Philcon”. This implies, very strongly, that the chair is not to be emailed unless absolutely necessary.

There are no names listed on the contact page. I looked through the entire website and I cannot find the name of a single member of the convention committee. I don’t know who wrote these policies. I don’t know who is accountable for them. I don’t know if any email I send will actually be read or responded to prior to the convention.

I know that Philcon is an old and established convention and that the same people have been working on it for years–continuity is a good thing. But there also needs to be transparency and accountability and the recognition that communities grow and change. There cannot be an assumption that everyone knows who is on the convention committee. That is clearly not the case.

So I feel that the only option left is for me to say something publicly. This is a badly written and organized policy and I believe that there are enough rhetorical loopholes to allow someone operating in bad faith to easily maneuver through them. If I can think of ways that I could get around them, then other people can, too.

I suggest that the convention committee look at the generic and open source policy outlined at Geek Feminism–it’s intended for tech conferences, but it can be easily adapted to a science fiction convention such as Philcon. There’s also the Readercon policy, which is comprehensive, fair, and clearly lays out what will happen if a report is made to the safety committee.

I have sent the full text of this post to the email address listed for the convention chair. Updates will be made to this post as needed.

For folks interested in false accusations of rape and statistics around them, I point you to this excellent and infuriating article which is full of links and information. Any comments made around false accusations will be heavily moderated.

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