SDCC Code of Conduct Still Deficient

Comic-Con International starts in San Diego on Thursday. Associated Press reporter Lindsay Bahr’s preview article, “1st Comic-Con of the MeToo era grapples with harassment”, picked up by papers like the Miami Herald, outlines the con’s historic harassment issues and turnover in this year’s guest list, but also speaks uncritically about the SDCC Code of Conduct. The SDCC CoC has not had a good reputation in the past — see for example the 2014 post “San Diego Comic-Con Pushes Back on Harassment Policy Petition” — and I reached out for comments on its current deficiencies for this File 770 post.

The AP article says —

…The convention has always been a home for comic book and genre enthusiasts, and a refuge for like-minded fans to mingle, but it’s also been a place rife with harassment of women and others, whether it’s cosplayers (people who dress up in costumes), general attendees or even those hawking merchandise (sometimes called “booth babes”).

“I don’t think any convention has historically been a safe or inviting space for women,” says Cher Martinetti, the managing editor of SYFY Wire’s Fangrrls site.

Sexual harassment at fan conventions is a subject that is often raised, but the scrutiny will be even more intense this year with the heightened awareness about misconduct.

Just weeks ago, Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick, a mainstay at Comic-Con and moderator of numerous panels, stepped aside from moderating AMC and BBC America panels amid allegations from an ex-girlfriend , which Hardwick has denied. And since last fall a handful of familiar Comic-Con faces, have been accused of misconduct as well, like Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles and “Honest Trailers” creator Andy Signore.

Comic-Con has a code of conduct that representatives say was, “Intentionally created to serve as a comprehensive measure that makes attendee safety a priority.

“We want all participants to feel if they are treated in a manner that makes them uncomfortable, that there is a system in place that will respond to misconduct and sexual harassment,” Comic-Con International told The Associated Press in a statement Sunday.

According to the code, attendees must “respect commonsense rules for public behavior” and “personal interaction” and that “harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated.” The code specifies that anyone who feels at risk should report it to a security person or a staff member and outlines the location of the show office in the San Diego Convention Center, which is open during show hours. Anyone who violates the code is at risk of losing their pass….

The Comic-Con International convention Code of Conduct reads:

Attendees must respect commonsense rules for public behavior, personal interaction, common courtesy, and respect for private property. Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated. Comic-Con reserves the right to revoke, without refund, the membership and badge of any attendee not in compliance with this policy. Persons finding themselves in a situation where they feel their safety is at risk or who become aware of an attendee not in compliance with this policy should immediately locate the nearest member of security, or staff member, so that the matter can be handled in an expeditious manner.

The Comic-Con Show Office is located in the lobby of Hall E of the San Diego Convention Center. During show hours you can always find a Comic-Con staff member or security guard at the Show Office. Please stop by there if you have any questions or concerns.

Four people who answered my call made these observations about the Code of Conduct.

A.G. Carpenter

The flaws with the Comic-con’s approach seem obvious, but here are my immediate (and general) thoughts about it.

I went and read through the actual policies page and, in addition to the Code of Conduct being woefully short and vague, there are no policies that address what “commonsense rules” for public behavior, interaction, etc actually looks like. Nothing to address videotaping or taking photos of people in public or private spaces. (They have two different policies regarding not recording panels/panelists or any images or video footage being presented because proprietary and exclusive, blahblahblah.) Nothing about asking permission to hug strangers or touch them or put your arm around someone for a photograph. Nothing about what harassing or offensive behavior means.

I mean, sure – you can’t write out *everything* that would be problematic. And things that are an issue for some folks won’t be for others. But by giving no examples it leaves the door wide open for abuse. (“I didn’t know they’d mind if I snapped this photo of her bending over.” “All my friends let me hug them, it’s no big deal.”) And it means that folks who are having problems will be even more reluctant to report them because they won’t know if the staffer they approach for assistance will take them seriously because there are no written guidelines about what the convention considers inappropriate. Of course, not writing anything down also lets the con off the hook if something with a higher profile guest happens because they could claim that there was no violation of written policy. Which does make the obvious omission of anything looking like an actual Code of Conduct seem suspicious.

Nchanter

Taking a quick look over the Code of Conduct on the convention website, the glaring omission here to me, other than the Code of Conduct being a little vague (no attempt at defining “common sense rules”), is any sort of information about what to expect when one makes a report, or what will happen after a report is made.  Lack of evidence that there is a post report process concerns me, as does the fact that there is no number to call in case going to the show office would not be a safe option.

Karl-Johan Norén

I’m far from a code of conduct expert, and even less so in working on enforcing them (I’m one of the last fen I know who I know should be put into that spot). But having read some code of conducts, discussed them sometimes, and seen a few incidents play out, I can give the following comments.

The code of conduct has some things in its favour: it is brief, it contains no parts that obviously contradict its purpose, and it gives the right to rescind memberships. If this was a small con, with maybe a couple hundred attendees, with no prior history of harassment, and known good people in the concom, this would be a workable CoC. And it does not contain the dread “your right not to be harassed is not a right not to be offended” clause.

Its deficiencies are in the things that are not said, because none of those three factors above are likely true for SDCC.

(1) No dedicated chains for reporting harassment. Handling harassment cases beyond any initial intervention is psychologically tricky at the best of times. The only con security people I’d trust to have a clue here are the Finnish ones. A con the size of SDCC should list a phone number, e-mail account, and at least physical point of contact dedicated to CoC issues. These points of contact should be heavily promoted (I’d not be averse to putting at least the phone number on the badge itself). Given SDCC’s size, the phone should probably be staffed 24/7 during the con, not only during show hours.

(2) There are no promises from the con regarding how CoC issues will be handled. Granted, the CoC itself is not the place where one should detail instructions to staff, but it should at least: (a) give a promise of confidentiality and discretion from the con towards the person reporting the issue, (b) outline the assistance and help the con can or will provide.

(3) The highest sanction the con reserves is to rescind a membership. Arguably, it should mention contacting the authorities as well, even if it is only like “we will assist any person wishing to contact the authorities, and assist the authorities in any following investigation”. I know US police are far worse than the Swedish police (which also have a poor historical track record), but the con might find itself dealing with cases of reported rape or sexual assault.

(4) No specific guidelines regarding cosplay or photography, nor any examples (clearly not limited to the list itself) of what the con sees as harassing behaviour.

John Scalzi says the CoC is why he keeps passing on chances to attend the convention:

The SDCC’s code never offers examples of what it considers harassing or inappropriate behavior (see the code of conduct at New York Comic Con as an example of a good version of explaining what it is) — it’s all a judgement call by whomever is taking the complaint, and it allows harassers more wiggle room than they should have. That’s not acceptable to me, and it’s one reason I haven’t been back to SDCC in several years.

[Thanks to Carl Slaughter for the story.]

6 thoughts on “SDCC Code of Conduct Still Deficient

  1. It reads as if they’re desperate not to drive away people who habitually push what at other cons are clear boundaries — which astounds me at a convention that IIUC sells out in a few hours. I wonder whether some lawyer told them not to say anything specific in order to avoid having to adjudicate?

  2. Vague AF, indeed. “Commonsense” isn’t, so everyone problematic can rules-lawyer their way around and pull the “I was just joking/it was a compliment” crap as usual. And “expeditiously” sounds good, but does that mean throwing the accused out ASAP, or ignoring the harassed person ASAP?

    I guess they figure they’re too big to matter. If women* decide not to come, there are still plenty of unsocialized man-boys to take up the profit slack. Rules are for the little people.

    Funny how NYCC and many other Comic Cons manage to keep going even with firmer CoC, not to mention all the fan-run cons which don’t even have professional staff available.

    *add other often-harassed groups if’n ya want; they aren’t going to do any better

  3. There’s no point in citing “commonsense” rules for harassment; that’s what so many other cons have done for years by having no Code of Conduct at all! This is so handwavy and vague that I expect a rabbit to appear from a hat.

  4. Yep, SDCC is the big kahuna of multi-media cons and Hollywood has turned it into Mecca, so they don’t have to have a clear code of conduct (it took awhile to get them to have any code at all.) They are gambling that if there is an assault, etc., they’ll be able to lawyer their way out of it, even though a better code would protect them.

    NYCC and some other big cons have been smart and set up a better and enforced code to get out in front of the issue, but it all depends on who runs the convention, as we saw with the mess in ConCarolinas and at Fan X in Salt Lake. If SDCC becomes more and more of an outlier, which it is, and if the #MeToo movers and shakers and their bosses put some pressure on the convention organizers, which they may, especially if there is an incident with an actress, then SDCC will probably eventually fix it. The fact that it has aggressively been going after other cons that use the term ComicCon means they are worried about being out-paced eventually by other growing conventions. And so they may be slowly pressured to change, especially if vendors can’t deal with the problems and place their bets elsewhere. But with SDCC, it really depends on Hollywood and the ripples that come out of there because otherwise the convention is insulated from caring if their attendees get hurt and clearly the organizers of the convention don’t care at all. Bad press may help.

    It’s basically a disaster waiting to happen and rampant sexism, but until the convention organizers change, that’s going to be the convention culture for the next few years. Comics is going through a big shift, but the spillover can be slow.

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