Columns > Published on February 11th, 2014

Writer's Conventions: A Hot-Bed of Legal Issues

TRIGGER WARNING: This column refers to sexual harassment and assault, and may be triggering to some people.

Conventions are fantastic events, particularly for the writing and publishing industry. They give writers a chance to network with agents and publishers, and other writers. Aside from the positive business advantages of attending conferences, they can be wonderful social events.

But there’s something about conventions that can bring out behavior in people that is disrespectful at best, and illegal at worst.  Rather than writing a “what not to do” column, I’d like to assume everyone already knows how to behave appropriately. Let’s think of this as a “what to keep an eye out for” and a “if you see something, say something” reminder.

So what sorts of issues should you be aware of? And how can you gauge what sorts of conventions will treat these issues seriously?

Codes of Conduct

When I set out to write this column, I Googled writer’s conventions and codes of conduct. Surprisingly, I found very little with these search terms. In my opinion, all professional conventions should have a code of conduct, or any kind of document that explains what is expected of its participants and workers, what behaviour is inappropriate, and what steps will be taken when inappropriate or illegal behaviour is seen by or reported to convention officials.

Aside from state and federal laws on issues like assault, sexual crimes, and discrimination, codes of conduct will outline behavior that is and isn’t acceptable. These should look very similar to how workplace codes of conduct look, and should extend to the convention managers, convention staff, and to convention participants.  If a conference or convention doesn’t have a code of conduct, it may be termed something like "Participant Agreement" or "Terms and Conditions of Attendance", or  in the case of the American Library Association, a Standard of Appropriate Conduct.  

And having a code of conduct is just the first level in dealing with bullying and harassment. The second step is enforcing this code of conduct. In some areas, a zero tolerance policy is necessary.

Conventions gone wild

You may think the need for such a code is redundant and that people will operate on the basic moral and ethical assumptions that bullying and harassment are inappropriate and unacceptable. This isn’t the case.

Allegations of sexual harassment and bullying are too numerous to list in detail. A detailed example of one such case is over at Mary Robinette Kowal's blog, about a senior editor of a high profile publication sexually harassing writers. Jim C. Hines blogged about harassment at World Fantasy Con last year and later posted a Harassment Policy Starter Kit for conventions that did not have such a policy in place. Other high profile authors like John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig have also blogged about harassment at conventions.

Personally, I’ve gone to conventions and had no issues in environments that are almost 100% male (like the Sci-Fi Freecon I attended in 2011 in Katoomba, Australia). But I’ve also experienced a man grabbing me at a strictly professional convention. I threatened to break his arm if he ever tried again – not something I’d recommend anyone else say. It’s always smarter not to threaten with assault. You can see my suggestions in the last section of this column on how you can handle this a little bit better than I did.

Before you sign up for a convention, look for their code of conduct and do a thorough Google search on them. If there have been issues, there will no doubt be a blog post on it – nothing goes unnoticed on the Internet. If you can’t find a document or post that deals with harassment, bullying or discrimination, you may wish to speak to a conference convener before signing up.

What sort of behavior is unacceptable?

Where there are official guidelines like a code of conduct, they should explicitly cover unacceptable and inappropriate behavior like sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination.  In Australia, bullying and harassment are covered under work health and safety legislation, and these statutes applie to anyone who enters a workplace – so conventions and conferences would be covered. This is not the case with participants in conventions in the United States.  Where there are no formal guidelines, you’re protected to the extent of state and federal laws.

The American Library Association Statement  specifically prohibits inappropriate behavior at conventions:

·Harassment or intimidation based on race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status.

·Sexual harassment or intimidation, including unwelcome sexual attention, stalking (physical or virtual), or unsolicited physical contact.

·Yelling at or threatening speakers (verbally or physically). 

It also requires its convention participants to:

… observe these rules and behaviors in all conference venues, including online venues, and conference social events. Participants asked to stop a hostile or harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. Conference participants seek to learn, network and have fun. Please do so responsibly and with respect for the right of others to do likewise.

You may notice that this policy doesn’t have a zero tolerance approach (like I am told some tech conferences have in light of really shitty behavior like putting pornographic slides up at talks or sexually assaulting women). Such an approach is up to the convention holder, and I suspect in this case librarians are probably a low risk category for harassment. 

But what happens where there is no formal code of conduct?

Aside from behavior that is clearly prohibited by state and federal laws such as assault and sexual crimes, you don’t have to put up with sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. Whilst there may not be a formal code, policy or statement in place, it’s likely that any normal person won’t find this behavior acceptable and will do something about it.

If something makes you feel uncomfortable, my three suggestions are (and feel free to add more in the comments section if you have ideas):

  1. Tell the person who’s making you feel uncomfortable.
  2. Tell an event official, so something can be done about it.
  3. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first two options, get someone to tell an official for you. Bear in mind that a second-hand account in any situation bears less of an impression than a personal account, but this will have more impact than saying nothing at all. 

The main point to note is that if people don’t know, nothing can be done.

In the event that you want to escalate your complaint (whether to a convention director, a police officer, or a lawyer), it’s always prudent to follow your account of the events in writing. If the incident is of a criminal nature, you need to file a report with the police as soon as possible after the incident occurs. 

And lastly, bullying and harassment, whether illegal and/or a breach of convention policies, can hurt and effect people mentally and emotionally. If this happens to you, find someone you trust to talk to, whether it's a friend, a family member, or a mental health or medical profession.

Disclaimer: This column does not create a client-attorney relationship and is not intended as legal advice. Should you need any legal advice, speak to an attorney who is skilled in the area and jurisdiction you require.  

About the author

In a previous life, Jessica worked for 12 years in the legal industry, with her last purely legal role being the corporate counsel for a property management company in Australia. Since then, she’s been the editor for an online literary journal and currently manages a music/tech start-up. She also freelancers as a contract lawyer and content producer, and writes regular columns for Litreactor and Gypsy Girl.

Jessica’s fiction and poetry has appeared in or is upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (Aus), Beware the Dark (UK), Kaleidotrope, Plasma Frequency Magazine, and Pantheon Magazine.

She loves swimming, and like Peter Singer, considers herself a flexible vegan and focuses on the welfarist approach to animal rights.

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