While ALA has many strengths as an institution, rolling out new organizational policy changes is not one of them. Since the announcement of the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at Conferences (hereafter Code of Conduct), there has been much in the way of hand wringing. How does this reflect on the organization’s commitment to freedom of ideas and expression? What kinds of speech are expressly allowed, contextually allowed, and outright prohibited? What is the procedural structure for people accused of violating the code? In the current framing of the debate, it’s as if people are seeing institutional regulation of speech and behavior for the first time when they are not.
I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that every nearly library has a policy in place about patron/customer conduct that outlines what is acceptable and unacceptable. They set the boundaries for behavior and conduct within the library. Like the Code of Conduct, these policies contain instances and situations in which there will be several possible staff action outcomes: no action, intervention, ejection. We don’t always act on patron activities nor do we accept when people are being disruptive or harassing to other patrons or staff in our libraries, so why should our professional conferences any different? The presence of a policy and procedure provides a structure to address those issues, regardless of the outcome.
The discussion of the sticky wicket of freedom of expression and speech hinges on a few ideas. First, that this policy will act as a chilling effect on it. To me, there is always a chill on freedom of expression no matter whether a policy exists or not. People will be intimidated to speak up under either model for a number of reasons. It’s the lesser of two evils to accept some form of regulation in order to get more speech out of a greater number of people. Also, it’s not unheard of that a library would have a customer conduct policy in a library that aims to be inclusive by regulating behavior. We are a community resource, not the executive clubhouse for assholes.
Second, that presenters and speakers must adhere to (for lack of a better term) political correctness. Beyond the fact that the policy asks (not demands, not requires) presenters to be inclusive, speakers are given an additional degree of latitude since they act to provoke critical thinking and discussion. This section is more of a reflection of our professional collection development policies. The library may have something that will offend patron; we advise them to don’t read, listen, or watch it and move along. Standards in modern construction are required to make exits highly visible and since no sessions prevent people from leaving, egress from a talk that offends someone is encouraged by the Code of Conduct (the law of two feet). You might not like what the speaker is saying, but you don’t have to subject yourself to it either.
My only remaining concern is how the definition of “conference social events” will be interpreted. Does this include unofficial events like tweetups? Parties at the ALA Think Tank house? How far does the Code of Conduct reach into the unofficial outlying social events around the conference? And before anyone jumps on it, I’m not talking about harassment behaviors which can arise to criminal offenses but to civil (and possibly uncivil) discourse. There are some grey areas here that need to be explored.
Overall, I think the Code of Conduct is a good policy, one that will be altered over time as issues and situations arise. Unfortunately, it needs some test cases in order to see how it would work in the field. I hope people can be patient while the policy matures. In the long run, it will change to reflect the needs of the attendees and the organization. It’s just a matter of getting there.