Ron Lindsay has challenged Karen Stollznow’s account of being subject to sexual harassment by Ben Radford and the Center for Inquiry’s response to that harassment. In response, Scientific American has taken the post down.
Having been on the receiving end of one of Lindsay’s letters demanding “correction”, I’m not overly impressed by SciAm’s response. I simply told him that if facts were in dispute, I wasn’t going to just publish his account. I gave him a choice between getting together with the person who supplied the information he didn’t want to have published and come to an agreement about what had happened and having both sides of the story posted. He opted to do nothing.
Still, at least his letter is some kind of response to Stollznow’s post and the public outcry. It is far better than the non-response previously posted at their site in that it provides information on the situation. That is to say, there is a good deal of Stollznow’s original post that has not required a correction. Let us take a look at what that is.
This man is a predator who collects girls of a certain “type”. His targets are chubby, shy, lonely, and insecure, just like I used to be. In the early days I looked up to him and was flattered that he seemed to respect my work. I quickly spotted some red flags but I disregarded them. These became too big to ignore, so I called it all off. The rejection was ego shattering to him at first, and then met with disbelief. This was followed by incessant communication of a sexual nature, including gifts, calls, emails, letters, postcards, and invites to vacation with him in exotic places so we could “get to know each other again”. He wouldn’t leave me alone. This wasn’t love. It was obsession. His desperation only increased when I met another man. He continued his harassment as though my boyfriend (who is now my husband) didn’t even exist.
From late 2009 onwards I made repeated requests for his personal communication to cease but these were ignored. He began manipulating the boundaries by contacting me on the pretext of it being work-related. Then came the quid pro quo harassment. He would find opportunities for me within the company and recommend me to television producers, but only if I was nicer to him. One day the company offered me an honorary position that I’d worked hard for, but he warned me that he had the power to thwart that offer. I threatened to complain to his employer, but he bragged that another woman had accused him of sexual harassment previously and her complaints were ignored. According to him, she had been declared “batshit crazy”. Then, he saw me at conferences and took every opportunity to place me in a vulnerable position. This is where the psychological abuse turned physical and he sexually assaulted me on several occasions.
This is the main substance of the complain against Radford. I don’t expect, given what Richard Carrier told us today about New York state law, that Lindsay would comment on the specifics of this directly. However, in publicizing this letter, he does confirm that allegations along these general lines were made to CFI, investigated, and found to be at least partially founded.
As often happens in these situations, the blame is shifted to the victim. Like the woman in The Drew Carey Show, the victim may be labeled a prude or “uptight”. She lacks a sense of humor. She’s crazy. She may be portrayed as a troublemaker by the accused and his supporters. To undermine her claims, she might be branded a serial complainer, where sexism and sexual harassment are often confused, “You know, she’s accused other men of sexism before.” The case may be demonized as a witch-hunt, and become a cautionary tale told by those who fear that they too could be branded a “harasser” over the slightest comment or glance. “Watch out, or she’ll accuse you too!” I was held up to scrutiny in this way too. According to gossip about me, I gave him mixed-signals, I led him on, I’m flirtatious, and I’m a dirty little slut.
Lindsay does not deny that these tactics have been used to undermine Stollznow’s claims about harassment and assault.
Sometimes an organization under-reacts to the claims. This was my experience. Following “Elevatorgate”, the company introduced a “zero tolerance policy for hostile and harassing conduct”.
Lindsay objects to this characterization: “CFI first adopted a policy prohibiting sexual harassment after “Elevatorgate” — a controversy that occurred in the summer of 2011. This allegation is false. CFI’s current harassment policy was adopted in 2007, and a prior, abbreviated one was in place in 2003.”
I disagree with Lindsay that this is what Karen means here. I trust without verification that CFI had an internal policy in place before last year (not 2011). It’s just the smart thing to do. What I believe Karen is saying here is that, coming after they adopted a policy with language as strong as CFI’s policy on conduct at conferences, the response they gave her to an internal matter was even more disappointingly lackluster. She is suggesting they’re not meeting their own showy standards. I tend to agree with her. When I documented significant hostile behavior on Justin Vacula’s part before the Women in Secularism conference, the response I received to that was anything but “zero tolerance”.
When I approached them with my accusations they appeared to be compassionate initially. I spent many hours explaining my story over the phone and days submitting evidence. Then they hired an attorney to collect the facts and I had to repeat the process. I provided access to my email account. I also devoted two days to face-to-face discussions about my ordeal.
This depth of investigation appears to be supported by Lindsay’s account. It doesn’t take as long for an attorney to reach “approximately $40,000 in fees and costs” as it might some other kinds of investigators, but that does still suggest this went far beyond asking a few people to tell their stories. (Joe Anderson has also revealed that he was witness to the behavior in question and was interviewed in this process.)
This “fact collector” also collected a lot of hearsay from my harasser, about how I’m a slut and “batshit crazy”. This tactic of the accused is so common it’s known as the “nut and slut” strategy. I soon learned that the attorney was there to protect them, not me.
Lindsay’s comments don’t speak directly to this one way or another
Five months after I lodged my complaint I received a letter that was riddled with legalese but acknowledged the guilt of this individual. They had found evidence of “inappropriate communications” and “inappropriate” conduct at conferences. However, they greatly reduced the severity of my claims. When I asked for clarification and a copy of the report they treated me like a nuisance. In response to my unanswered phone calls they sent a second letter that refused to allow me to view the report because they couldn’t release it to “the public”.
Lindsay’s letter doesn’t speak to this, but the correspondence made public by Carrie Poppy confirms the presence of a letter with some findings of guilt. It is also suggestive of the idea that Stollznow was not in possession of a copy of the report.
They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas. They offered no apology, that would be an admission of guilt, but they thanked me for bringing this serious matter to their attention.
Lindsay refutes the information on discipline directly: “When CFI suspended the employee that Ms. Stollznow had accused of harassment, the suspension was allowed to run concurrently with his vacation. This is false. By making this false claim, Ms. Stollznow implies that CFI was not serious in disciplining the employee.”
Again, I disagree with Lindsay in part here. Given the work Stollznow had to go through to follow up on her report to CFI, it is likely that this is the result of unclear communication.
Then they asked me to not discuss this with anyone. This confidentiality served me at first; I wanted to retain my dignity and remain professional. Then I realized that they are trying to silence me, and this silence only keeps up appearances for them and protects the harasser.
The situation has disadvantaged me greatly. I have lost a project I once worked on, I have had to disclose highly personal information to colleagues, and I don’t think that I’ll be offered work anymore from this company. Perhaps that’s for the best considering the way they have treated me.
In the comments of today’s post, “a project I once worked on” seems to be assumed by multiple people to be Point of Inquiry. Lindsay says:
Karen Stollznow has never been an employee of CFI. She was a contractor who did a show for POI once a month in 2010 and 2011. CFI did not renew her contract. In deciding not to renew her contract, I relied principally on the advice of Adam Isaak, then POI producer. So her ceasing to be a POI host had zero connection to the harassment issue. Stollznow has also done freelance work for our publications. Not sure when her last work was done. There is no bar to her continuing to do freelance work.
Here Lindsay is deviating rather far from that old policy of silence as far as Stollznow leaving Point of Inquiry is concerned. That’s not necessary, since my understanding is that the project Stollznow refers to is Monster Talk. Blake Smith has issued a statement that suggests he is not interested in cutting ties with either Stollznow or Radford. However, as a practical matter in most harassment situations, decisions like that simply mean that the person who has been harassed has a choice between interacting further with their harasser and walking away.
Similarly, Lindsay’s suggestions that “there is no bar” to Stollznow continuing to work for them is nonsense. Ben Radford is deputy editor for Skeptical Inquirer. As long as CFI maintains him in that position, there is not only a bar to Stollznow taking freelance work from the magazine, there is also a bar to any other woman who feels they may be Radford’s “type”.
I have since discovered that this company has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly, and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys. Another colleague assured me this was better than their previous custom of simply ignoring claims of sexual harassment.
Lindsay objects to this quite strongly:
This allegation clearly implies that CFI’s “history” is extraordinarily bad. This allegation is false. 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. Ms. Stollznow’s claim is also the only one in which there was a specific finding of any sexual harassment, so the allegation that CFI has a “track record” of disciplining harassers lightly is false. No harassment was found in the prior cases so there was no discipline for harassment. (In one of the prior cases, an employee was disciplined, but for numerous other offenses.)
If there’s one thing most of learned last summer, it’s to dig into the details of statements like these. When Lindsay says, “complaints”, what does he mean exactly? Is he referring to every bit of problematic behavior that was brought to the attention of management and handled informally? No, probably not. He probably means only those complaints that moved beyond that initial step into a formal complaint and investigation.
Stollznow, on the other hand, with access to the organizational grapevine and the larger grapevine that is our tiny, combined movements, probably knows about far more than three cases, just as we knew of more than “zero reports of harassment“.
Additionally, those who have heard much about the cultural history of CFI have heard that Paul Kurtz was uninterested in exploring claims of sexual harassment, much as he was uninterested in following rules to ensure a lack of discrimination in hiring practices. Similarly, everyone so plugged in knows Lindsay’s tenure has been a huge step forward in employment compliance for CFI.
However, Kurtz did nothing if he did not leave a legacy behind him. There are downsides to that legacy as well as upsides. A general unwillingness to push claims of harassment without specific encouragement from management is likely one of those lingering effects of Kurtz’s policies and priorities. So is a staff member (members?) willing to harass. How many complaints at CFI have been brought up to management but never officially reported in that atmosphere?
Looking at Karen Stollznow’s post and Ron Lindsay’s reply, I don’t see that Lindsay has as much cause to complain as he thinks. While a request for clarifications was probably warranted, Lindsay’s letter–set up in the form of a legal case for damages–seems quite (if characteristically) heavy-handed. It does, however, continue to bolster the case against Radford both in what it does and what it does not say.