TPF: Perl deserves better. Please do better.
A recent Standards of Conduct incident regarding The Perl Conference 2019 (TPC) has been deeply divisive within the Perl Community, and handled so poorly that a "clarification" has since been issued.
Overview of the Incident
The first is linked when you register to attend the conference and briefly outlines to whom the document applies, expected behaviors (including unacceptable behaviors), and consequences when in breach of the standard. The second is linked from the first and provides structure around how complaints will be received and acted upon.
The facts of the incident seem to be:
- A talk was given at the conference, wherein the speaker noted the contributions of various authors to Perl
- No one in attendance during the talk made a complaint to the TPC organizers during the conference
- No problems were found when the talks were edited and uploaded to YouTube
- Someone who watched the talk on YouTube, then made a complaint to TPC organizers
- The complaint was upheld, the YouTube video taken down, and an announcement made publicly
- The announcement went "viral", with prominent persons in the Perl community advocating further action be taken beyond the SoC and generally stoking divisions within the community
- The person who is assumed to be the offended by comments in the talk publicly states they are not, thereby implying that a third party who did not attend the talk, nor is was mentioned in the talk, has issued the complaint.
- The speaker is removed from speaking at other Perl conferences
How The Perl Foundation reacted
Regarding SoC violations the TPC has stated that their policy is as follows:
"Presentations or similar events should not be stopped for one-time gaffes or minor problems, although an event organizer or a volunteer should speak to the presenter afterward. However, organizers and volunteers should take immediate action to politely and calmly stop any presentation or event that repeatedly or seriously violates the anti-harassment policy. For example, simply say "I’m sorry, this presentation cannot be continued at the present time" and provide no further explanation."
At a minimum, TPC and The Perl Foundation (TPF) has flagrantly failed to abide by it's policy to "provide no further information" when incidents occur. Given that no one in the audience, and no one who was mentioned in the talk was offended, a strong argument can be made that the incident is a "minor problem" or "one-time gaffe" and should be treated as such.
TPF has gone further than simply breaking its own SoC by providing information regarding this complaint - issuing a public statement that is almost certainly defamatory, and the mob-like reaction by many people on social media would confirm the statements inflammatory nature.
Further, the SoC states:
"Public Statements. As a general rule, event organizer and volunteers should not make any public statements about the behavior of individual people during or after the event."
This requires people (i.e. organizers, volunteers) to not respond on social media (which would constitute a public statement) and certainly not advocating for the removal of individuals from subsequent events - which goes clearly goes beyond expulsion from the event.
Regarding expulsion, the SoC has a clause which is as follows:
"An event participant may be expelled by the decision of SoC Event Committee for whatever reasons they deem sufficient. However, here are some general guidelines for when a participant should be expelled: A second offense resulting in a warning. Continuing to harass after any “no” or “stop” instruction. A pattern of harassing behavior with or without warnings. A single serious offense, e.g., groping someone or a physical assault. A single obviously intentional and extreme offense."
The incident does not seem to fit any of these criteria.
Sadly, it seems that leaders and prominent persons in the Perl community are not familiar with the SoC and how TPF has promised it will be applied. Whilst there are numerous broad clauses such as clause 5 "Any action they deem appropriate", it's reasonable that attendees should be able to expect handling of incidents to be in line with the "general guidelines".
The Perl Conference is now a hazard for speakers, attendees, and volunteers
As TPF and TPC organisers have acted outside the SoC that they have provided, it's impossible for anyone to attend a future event without fear of arbitrary actions and retributions by prominent community members.
A speaker can no longer be assured that in the event of "minor problems" or a "one-time gaffes", that they will be treated as described in the SoC. Participants now risk being defamed (or at a minimum, their actions misrepresented) by TPF and publicly attacked by community leaders.
At a minimum this incident highlights that when well-meaning people act in haste, and insufficient processes and procedures are in place - people get hurt and the community suffers.
The urgent need for change
Moving forward, it is very clear that the whole community needs TPF to perform a thorough review of the Standards of Conduct and associated policy and procedures.
Key considerations for the review should include:
Who has standing to make a complaint?
It is unclear who made the complaint in this incident, as it was not raised by attendees or organisers of the conference at the time of presentation, nor was it raised by the individual who was the subject of the remarks being complained about.
Clarification must be provided whether a third party has standing under the SoC to be a complainant, particularly when neither the person mentioned is not in fact offended?
Must a complainant be at the conference? Or can a person who has only viewed the video online also have a recourse? Is there a time period are a conference during which complaints will sill be accepted?
How are complaints reviewed and handled?
For all attendees, including speakers, it is vital that they understand how complaints will be handled and reviewed.
Complainants need the guarantee that they will be taken seriously and passed to law enforcement if appropriate. Subjects of a complaint need an equal assurance that they will be presumed innocent, have opportunity to dispute complaints, and defend their reputation and good name in a proper mediation process. Especially when no harm is intended.
Announcements regarding violations
Within the confines of the conference, the organizers and the foundation are largely free to include and exclude, people and content at their discretion. However in public forums such as the Internet there is much opportunity to make mistakes that will not only reflect poorly on the Perl community but also open the TPF and individuals to risk of legal action.
For this reason, public statements need to be made with care. Ideally they should be reviewed by legal counsel, using prepared templates included as appendices to the SoC.
Which parties may remain anonymous needs to be clarified ahead of issuing any public statement and the offending party needs to be given ample acknowledgment if they apologize etc. Generally speaking, if a reconciliation succeeds then no further action, including an announcement, should be made publicly unless both parties agree.
What is the expected behavior of prominent members of the Perl community?
In the event that a complaint is upheld, that a reconciliation process occurs, and that both parties are satisfied with the outcome. Should Perl community members accept this outcome, and consider the matter closed?
Leaders in the Perl community must uphold the SoC not only by adhering to it but also by respecting its outcomes both in action and via their social media, Internet, and personal communications. They must show leadership by allowing people to grow and move on from mistakes.
Failure to uphold the outcomes of the SoC processes must carry their own penalties, which should be sufficiently severe as to ensure the integrity of the SoC.
The best outcome should be reconciliation and greater respect
It's stated that "The Perl Foundation believes our community should be truly open for everyone" which implies that the purpose of the SoC is to include more people, not to swiftly exclude people.
So these standards need to speak to inclusion and reconciliation as goals in the event of violations - rather than expulsion, which seems to be the current goal.
Is the outcome to evict a speaker or attendee from the conference, then drive them from the perl community? Or, is the goal to provide a process of improved understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness? What is the best outcome when the complaints process is followed?
The SoC needs to be rewritten, TPF/TPC personnel trained properly
The SoC seems to be written by someone well-intentioned, but without any legal or HR experience. Which the above points highlight, in addition to the overlapping clauses and vague terminology.
With the above in mind, the TPF should engage a competent legal firm to draft a more fully formed and properly thought out SoC document as well as procedures relating to staff handling of complaints, the mediation and/or resolution process, and any additional or associated procedures that may support TPF and TPC in socialising and enforcing the SoC within the wider Perl community.
The hasty behaviour of TPF personnel highlights the need for them to be trained in the procedures prescribed in the SoC, and for there to be clear reporting and review structures in place that include obtaining legal advice before taking any public action (especially outside the conference and on the public Internet).
I choose to post this anonymously. I am not involved in this incident.