Does the American Library Association have an issue with harassment at its conferences? One might think so, as the ALA leadership unexpectedly issued a statement on appropriate conduct for all conference attendees in early January, just a few weeks before its upcoming Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia (January 24–28).

News of the code lit up the blogs and the Twitterverse upon its release, with critics and supporters debating the language of the code and its implementation. Of course, shouldn’t this broad discussion have happened before the code was adopted by the ALA board?

The codes traces its roots to just before the 2013 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, when a group pf members asked the organization’s leadership whether the ALA had an antiharassment policy for conferences. Ultimately, a group of about 20, led by Andromeda Yelton, a member of the Library Information Technology Association board of directors, created a document that formed the basis of the new code.

In a blog post, Yelton wrote that the purpose of the code is to acknowledge that ALA conferences are places where “silencing people through graphic threats of sexual violence or open and regular degradation is treated as unacceptable,” and “if it happens to you there’s a place to go.” She added that the code is also meant “to (crucially) say that the bystanders care too.”

The code draws much of its impetus from disturbing incidents of sexual harassment and intimidation at other conferences—particularly those serving the technology, science fiction, comic, and gaming communities, such as the incidents chronicled by the Ada Initiative.

ALA has had exhibit floor rules for decades, says Mary Ghikas, ALA’s senior associate executive director, but until recently, it hadn’t articulated a code of acceptable conduct for attendees at its conferences. Ghikas says she, too, was a bit surprised when some members called for a code of conduct, as the assumption had been that most people understood what was appropriate behavior at a professional association conference, and that existing policies were adequate—even though, Ghikas acknowledged, there have been incidents.

“Free speech doesn’t give you the right to hit on somebody, to use blunt language. And ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and you had better take it that way,” Ghikas explains. “On the other hand,” she says, “we also need to say to the people who are raising the issue that just because someone uses sexualized language doesn’t in and of itself make it harassment. There is a line there that’s tricky.”

Code Breakers?

Matthew Ciszek, an ALA councilor-at-large who helped write the code, described some of the code’s intentions in a blog post. “Obviously you can’t have a discussion on literature related to child abuse survivors without using sexual imagery or language, and this is protected in the [code],” he wrote. “But leaning over to a colleague at a conference and telling him or her your abuse fantasy is most definitely harassment and hostile conduct.”

But even in such an unbecoming and unprofessional example as that, is it unreasonable to ask what criteria ALA will use to discern between a legal expression of sexual feelings, and harassment? Is a single instance actionable, or is repeated unwelcome behavior necessary? What procedures will be followed? What rights will someone accused of inappropriate behavior have? And can any code assure that outraged stupidity will never spill into professional panels?

Perhaps most importantly, how will ALA enforce the code? The statement on conduct states that if an attendee is asked to stop what has been deemed hostile or harassing behavior, and does not comply immediately, ALA staff (led by the director of conference services) and legal counsel will “determine and carry out the appropriate course of action.” It also leaves open the possibility of involving event security and local law enforcement.

Nowhere, however, does the code explain how such determinations about behavior are made, or what specific actions might be taken. Through the code of conduct, ALA, rightfully, seeks to give people who feel threatened some recourse, and a safe place to go. But after that there is a troubling vagueness.

“There’s just not a whole lot of specifics I can give you, and there’s not a lot of specifics for really good reasons,” Ghikas says, referring to the fact that this is territory already governed by a complex legal framework that supersedes anything ALA can or should or will do via a code of conduct.

When the executive board approved the statement in October, after extensive consultations with ALA’s lawyers, it acknowledged as much, noting that the board “sought to craft a document that was responsive to individuals and also responsive to ALA’s ‘real legal and practical limitations.’"

The code itself, on the other hand, is not so explicit in recognizing these “legal and practical” limitations—unlike the policies put forward by other conferences, such as CodeMash, which was held last week in Sandusky, Ohio.

CodeMash advises conference attendees that staff members “are not trained conflict-resolution specialists” and that “for the protection of both attendees and our organization, CodeMash will never put its staff members in the position of trying to assess whether or not an incident merits escalation. If there is any doubt, we will escalate incidents to the appropriate agency immediately.”

Free Speech?

In a recent Library Journal piece, Yelton noted that the ALA code of conduct for conferences is simply about “clarifying the threats,” and that the intent is not to squelch intellectual freedom and free speech.

“People from a variety of backgrounds must feel confident that ALA values their engagement and personal safety, so that they will choose to attend ALA events and share their opinions and experiences there,” she wrote.

But the code is so cloaked in ambiguity that it invites diffidence. For example, the code says that “speakers are asked to frame discussions as openly and inclusively as possible” and to be aware of “how language or images may be perceived by others.” People also are prohibited from “yelling,” which is a fine example of impracticality.

In the online discussion that has followed since the code was announced, proponents have struck me as a bit too quick to dismiss those who ask questions about the unintended consequences of the new rules, or the lack of specifics, as uninformed or narrow-minded. However, an intellectual chill does not arrive all at once. It takes hold one unintended degree at a time. And when ad hoc groups try to teach manners and correct vocabulary, there is a legitimate fear that important subtleties may be overlooked.

Every member of ALA certainly has as a right to expect courteous and professional behavior at conferences and events, and the ALA's statement on conduct seeks to address what has become a serious problem at other conferences. But the code may give reasonable people pause, because such codes can unwittingly engender a pernicious, even litigious environment all their own, especially when the underlying issues have not been carefully explained..

If ALA has a problem with unprofessional behavior at its conferences, a problem with “open and regular degradation,” shouldn’t ALA first document that problem with empirical evidence and publicize it to all the membership? Why not hold a larger forum on the problem of stalking and harassment at ALA conferences (and libraries)? And rather than debating the matter in some small, outlying conference room or in a Google workspace, or on blogs or Twitter, why not hold the discussion front and center, in the main auditorium?

Let’s define, measure, and discuss the problem—and the solution—in a much more broad and public way. Isn’t that the best way to bell the cat without potentially compromising other important principles?