That Was the Wrong Answer, CFI

So, yesterday I wrote a post about the issue of sexual harassment in the secular community boiling over. I cited a post written by Dr. Karen Stollznow, at Scientific American’s Mind blog, detailing her experiences with an employer which she says badly mishandled her complaint of harassment, and which was later reported to be the Center for Inquiry (CFI).

Then, yesterday afternoon, I discovered that Stollznow’s post was mysteriously gone. Shortly thereafter, Stollznow herself said the following on Twitter:

At first, this looked like a naked attempt at legal censorship. But the picture got more complicated when CFI’s president Ron Lindsay wrote a rebuttal, in which he confirmed that he wrote to Scientific American, but denied that he demanded the removal of Stollznow’s post. Instead, he says he only asked for several corrections to be made. I’ll address those corrections in this post.

First: Lindsay says that Stollznow is mistaken about the timing of when CFI instituted harassment policies. This has no relevance to the validity of the claims being contested here, so I’ll leave it aside.

Second: According to Lindsay, the most inflammatory part of Stollznow’s account – that her harasser was punished only by being “suspended” while he was on vacation anyway – was untrue. He doesn’t tell us what the punishment was (and legally, he may not be able to), only that Stollznow’s account was inaccurate.

I acknowledge that this could be true. However, even if it’s true, it’s hard to see how Stollznow can be blamed, since by her account she wasn’t allowed to see CFI’s final, official report about the harassment she reported, and had to rely on hearsay about what action was taken. But although outsiders may not know exactly how the harasser was punished, if it was indeed Benjamin Radford (as was widely reported and not denied by Lindsay), then one thing we do know is that he wasn’t fired. Now, keep that in mind as you read Lindsay’s response to the third and final claim, which was that CFI has a history of going easy on harassers:

I have been president & CEO from July 2008 forward. During that time, there have been only three complaints involving employees that could be described as involving sexual harassment claims, even under the broadest understanding of sexual harassment. This includes Ms. Stollznow’s claim.

…Out of an abundance of caution I will mention one other incident: a few years ago, an employee hired a male stripper to perform during office hours. We would consider this more gross misconduct as opposed to sexual harassment, but, in any event, this incident lends no support to the false claim that CFI treats “harassers lightly.” The employee was terminated almost immediately.

This was the really jaw-dropping part. Lindsay cites this as though it makes his position better; but actually, it makes it much, much worse. I say this because of what it reveals about what CFI’s leadership sees as the more serious offense: one instance of bringing a stripper into the office during work hours (admittedly a display of poor judgment) was punished by firing, whereas years of aggressive, unwanted, harassing conduct against one employee by another employee – contact which, in Stollznow’s telling, eventually escalated to direct job-related retaliation and even physical assault – was not deemed to merit ending the harasser’s employment.

For the sake of argument, I’ll grant that it was Scientific American’s timidity, and not legal bullying by CFI, that got Karen Stollznow’s post taken down. Even so, I have to extend CFI’s leadership a kind of horrified admiration. At pretty much every step of this controversy, they’ve managed to do just about the worst possible thing for their own standing and reputation. Every one of the staggering wounds they’ve suffered was wholly self-inflicted.

I’ve written about Lindsay’s condescending introduction to the Women in Secularism conference, and the flabby non-statement CFI’s board issued in response to fierce protest. (Lindsay did eventually apologize, to his credit, but the board never has.) Now, even if unwittingly, they’ve managed to convey the impression that when a woman speaks up about harassment, their response is to use legal pressure to silence her; and even their own defense of their conduct lends credence to the claim that they treat sexual harassment lightly. I can only gape at what a PR catastrophe this is.

I said yesterday that I wondered if there was any atheist or secular organization that’s worth supporting. I still do. Even though most other organizations haven’t damaged their reputations this badly, this flurry of news makes me wonder what else is out there that hasn’t been disclosed. It’s frustrating, because I thought that as a community we were making progress – slow, laborious, difficult progress, but progress nonetheless. Now it seems like the mountain we’ve already climbed is only a foothill compared to what lies ahead. But if that was the true scope of the problem, then I’m glad it’s becoming clear. I’d rather admit a difficult truth than labor under a comforting illusion. If we have to rebuild this community from the ground up, so be it; but we have to know the magnitude of the task before work can begin.

* * *

On a related note, Michael Shermer has threatened to sue PZ for defamation over a post that accused Shermer of sexual assault. More news on this as it develops.

Image credit: Martin Janner, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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