The Details of My Defamation Case

In June of 2016, Amy Frank accused me of sexual assault and sexual harassment at a house party the morning after I spoke for her campus organization in Arizona last year. The Secular Student Alliance retained a professional investigator who consulted documents and interviewed witnesses pertaining to this. He did not conclude any sexual harassment or assault had occurred. But the SSA has not disclosed any of his findings. I know personally that multiple eyewitnesses do not corroborate Frank’s new claims, and that harassment and physical contact were not part of her original complaint to the SSA last year, and also, based on what I was told by the SSA at the time, contradicted her own original statements conveyed to the SSA and to other witnesses. What really happened is just as I described.

That’s the status of the only actual sexual harassment charge against me.

Nevertheless, and as I’ve always said, because I did mention at the end of that party that Frank was welcome to ask me out someday in future if ever she was interested and able (a comment she expressed no objection to at the time), I did violate the SSA policy against fraternization that members of their speaker’s bureau are subject to, in exchange for special promotion and support from the SSA. Speakers for SSA events do not have to be bureau members. And those who are not on that bureau are not subject to that policy, which was then and has been separate from their sexual harassment policy. I agreed with the SSA that I should therefore not be on their bureau. They in turn informed me I could continue to speak for SSA affiliates, just not with bureau assistance. I have not been on that bureau since. And accordingly I have not been subject to that policy for a year. I have been a speaker for many SSA campus affiliates in that time, without incident.

In fact, in all my years of speaking at many dozens of SSA events, nationally and to campus affiliates, there have been no other complaints about my behavior reported to the SSA.

There have been additional claims made about me, not connected with the SSA, though those only anonymously and without details. How they have been described does not comport with extensive evidence of my actual conduct with women at events (as you can see from several comments here). I have taken great care to be respectful and considerate with any woman I’m attracted to. So to hear the reverse claimed is particularly shocking to me.

Nevertheless, if you are interested, I will now tell you the backstory on those other “anonymous” claims.

The Other Claims

I believe there are really only two other complaints about my behavior that are being spoken of, though under a veil of anonymity. Both involve long-term friends of mine at the time, each of whom I sent a single electronic message expressing my interest, years ago. They said no. I apologized. And I never renewed any expression of interest in them. That is literally all that this is about.

Let me make clear what this means:

  • In all of the over ten years of my speaking at and attending hundreds of events, no complaint has ever been filed against me for my behavior at any of them, by anyone. With the exception of Amy Frank, whose original accusation was not of sexual harassment, and whose new accusation is not credible, for the reasons I just described.
  • The only things being complained about now did not occur in person, did not occur at any event or conference, involved only long-standing friends of mine, and amount at worst to badly worded letters I sent them, letters sent between friends, and only once. For which I apologized and which I never repeated. And this was, again, years ago.

That’s it. That’s what is now being spun into wild conclusions about my dangerous behavior.

That being said, I have been recalibrating my behavior continually over the years as I get feedback. I agree I’ve been at times too assertive or insensitive to context, and I’ve been working steadily at improving. I wrote about that process last year in fact, describing my worst failures and what I learned from them.

But no one has said, to me or officially to any event or organization that I know, that my behavior toward them was inappropriate or harassing. I have always taken no for an answer, and have never continued any behavior I was told was unwanted or unappreciated, and I have never touched anyone inappropriately. Seeking permission, and listening to feedback, have always been my top rules for conduct. And now, to help communicate an even greater certainty of comfort to others, I have adopted even stricter conduct guidelines than that.

If you want to know more, you can continue reading. If you are tired of this conflation of ordinary behavior with sexual harassment and tired of the irresponsible lack of professionalism of bloggers and organizations that don’t perform investigations or release their results or even correctly describe events or their context, you can conclude here. But for those who want more detail, I will here provide it…

The Skepticon Accusation

Skepticon Inc. published an announcement that I was dangerous because of multiple claims against me and that I was therefore banned from their conference. In fact, in all of the seven years of Skepticons I have attended, there has never been a complaint filed against me for my behavior at any Skepticon. By anyone. Not by staff, officers, or attendees. If Skepticon Inc. continues to conceal this fact and persists in giving the opposite impression, that will be a key element in my defamation case against them.

Skepticon claims to know of other complaints, which they imply happened at other events. They have not shown any evidence such complaints actually exist, nor have they properly investigated any of them. They haven’t even properly investigated the claim that pertains to a “Skepticon staffer” (involving an incident that did not occur at Skepticon). They have never interviewed me, nor sought any evidence from me, nor interviewed pertinent witnesses. Nor did they even inform me any complaint had ever been filed with them. Not properly investigating serious accusations before issuing a statement that I was dangerous and to be banned for it, is reckless, irresponsible, and unprofessional.

I have repeatedly requested to Skepticon Inc. that they have all the claims they are relying on competently investigated before continuing to publish any such policy or statement. I even directed their way a highly-experienced professional investigator who does this for free and has conducted dozens of investigations for a large number of secular organizations over many years, and who is independent and wholly unaccountable to me. No response. So far they have refused to properly investigate any of the claims they are basing their statement on. Which is again reckless, irresponsible, and unprofessional. That will also be a key element in my defamation case against them.

In actual fact, the “Skepticon staffer” in question is Lauren Lane, an ex-lover of mine, who has indicated a strong dislike of me for breaking up with her, and who has harassed me in the past. And she is the one who wrote the Skepticon Inc. announcement. That she doesn’t inform the public of that enormous conflict of interest is deeply unprofessional. That the Skepticon board of directors allowed her to do that is deeply unprofessional. Likewise that she didn’t mention that the incident she is complaining about did not occur at Skepticon. Likewise that it occurred in the context of an on-and-off year-long relationship between us.

Witnesses and documents will both attest that many years ago Lauren Lane initiated a sexual relationship with me, at a Skepticon event she was running, at which I was a speaker. And that she did so without asking my consent, but just presuming my consent. In front of witnesses, who can attest to this fact. We had flirted for years, such that I am certain Lane had a sound belief in my interest, but I have to point out: I would never act that way myself without politely asking verbally first if it was something desired. I would be rightly disparaged for doing what she did.

We continued our sexual affair for many days over several months. At the time I was cheating on my wife with her, with Lane’s full knowledge. After some months I started to feel conflicted about cheating on my wife and told Lane we couldn’t continue, but we could remain friends. She did not accept my wishes. She harassed me repeatedly with attempts to persuade me to continue our relationship. I repeatedly and explicitly told her to stop. I explained that she needed to take no for an answer, and that I was in an emotional place and she needed to leave me alone for a while. But she persisted. My only remaining recourse was to block all communication with her and physically avoid her. Even then she attempted to bypass my wishes, by using a mutual friend as a proxy to relay her messages (a friend who in fact has full knowledge of all these events and can attest to them). Her behavior was consistently boundary-pushing and harassing. I never engaged in any such behavior toward her. I never pushed against any boundary she stated to me. I never harassed her.

Months later I had confessed my cheating to my wife and my wife and I began an open marriage arrangement. I then sent a single electronic message to Lane, renewing the sexual banter we had engaged in while together, based on her last communications with me, in which she had asked me to remove the barriers to our having a relationship and start again. But because I had been forced to cut off communications due to her harassment of me, I was unaware of things that had happened to her and her feelings in that intervening time. In that context what I wrote to her was really awful (and not something I’ve ever done again, with anyone). I apologized to her for that. She wanted to talk it over further in person at the next Skepticon, and we did, and I remained thoroughly apologetic. There are witnesses who can attest to all this as well. I never renewed any expression of interest in her. I took her no for an answer. And I heeded all her other requests regarding any future behavior with her. She expressed displeasure at my openly being with another woman at that Skepticon, but honestly, that was no longer her call. Our relationship was concluded.

Then years later, inspired by the false accusations of Amy Frank, Lane used her official status at Skepticon to defame me and ban me from their events.

Had a man done all that Lane has done, people would be outraged and calling for him to step down. Had a man running a conference initiated a sexual relationship with a speaker without expressly asking her permission, there would be outrage. Had that man then harassed her after she broke up with him, not taking her no for an answer and pushing past every stated boundary (even trying to bypass those boundaries by using a friend as a proxy), there would be outrage. If she then changed her mind and tried renewing her relationship with him with a single insensitive electronic missive repeating their past sexual banter, and was refused, and she immediately apologized and left him alone according to his wishes, and then he used his organization to defame her character and ban her from his conference, there would be outrage.

You might want to ask why there isn’t outrage at Lauren Lane, why I am the target of it, even though I didn’t do anything warranting it. She did the things I’ve been accused of (harassment and repeated boundary pushing). I did not. She initiated an overtly sexual act without verbally asking permission. I have never done that with anyone. And that actually occurred at Skepticon. My offending query to her did not.

The “Other Two Women”

Stephanie Zvan of The Orbit and PZ Myers of Freethought Blogs both claim they have spoken to “two other women” who have made claims against me. They released no details about those claims, just conclusory statements whose truth cannot be assessed. They conducted no professional investigation of any of those claims before publishing them, not even of the sort a competent journalist would perform. Such behavior is reckless, irresponsible, and unprofessional.

In fact I believe there are not two other women. There are in fact only two. One of them is Lauren Lane. The only person associated with Skepticon who has complained of my behavior. I have just related what that was actually about above. It’s appalling that Zvan and Myers have mischaracterized what happened in the terms they did. It’s actually quite discrediting of them. It demonstrates they cannot be trusted even to accurately describe what was told them, much less perform any reliable effort to ascertain its truth before publishing defamatory statements. This will be a key fact in my defamation case against Zvan and Myers and their respective blog networks.

The one remaining person who is complaining about me is Heina Dadabhoy (who prefers to be referred to by gender neutral pronouns). Witnesses have reported to me that Dadabhoy has been slandering me for years in private conversations all over the movement, supposedly spreading rumors or exaggerated and misleading statements about me. I cannot confirm what stories Dadabhoy has told. But I suspect any rumors circulating about me still, no matter who is conveying them now, were originated by them.

What I can confirm is our one interaction that Dadabhoy can now be complaining about, the only interaction between us that Dadabhoy has any basis to complain about. And I can confirm it because I have the documentation: our entire email conversation. Yes, their implied claim of sexual harassment against me refers to an email conversation between friends. It did not occur in person. It did not occur at any event or conference. I merely sent Dadabhoy one letter expressing my interest in them. It was a letter sent to a long-time friend. It wasn’t vulgar. It was polite and not presumptive. Dadabhoy refused me. I accepted their refusal and apologized. I never repeated my interest in them again.

That’s it. That’s all that happened.

Dadabhoy was bothered by my query because it occurred soon after they had joined the same blog network I was then part of, and because they had past grievances against me, which Dadabhoy listed (none pertaining to Dadabhoy, nor harassment, nor anything I’d heard from them before). Dadabhoy wasn’t working for me at Freethoughtblogs and I had little power over their role there. I saw them as a peer and an equal, so I hadn’t thought of that being problematic. We spoke about it later, though, and I agreed that I could have waited on the timing; and I could have composed a briefer, more exploratory query. But apart from that, there was nothing egregious about my actions with them. We had been friends for years and had engaged in mild flirtatious banter. I had no idea they loathed me. And I respected Dadabhoy’s wishes the moment they communicated them.

It should be clear this interaction is not at all what Zvan and Myers depict or describe. It also does not warrant banning me from conferences or concluding I’m a danger to anyone. Nor does what happened with Lane. That they are recklessly stating wildly disproportionate judgments, and failing to report the actual facts to the public that grossly alter the picture they’ve drawn, will be key elements of my defamation case against them and their blog networks.

A Fundamentally Broken Epistemology

It is very disheartening to see feminists in our movement act exactly as MRA’s and other anti-feminists claim they would: by believing any claim told them without investigating it, and exaggerating ordinary and relatively harmless behavior into dangerous sexual harassment. This is a fundamentally broken epistemology. I have always said competent feminists don’t just “believe the accuser.” They take accusations seriously, by conducting or calling for a formal or at least competent investigation. That’s sound epistemology. Whatever epistemology The Orbit and Freethoughtblogs is deploying, it’s not sound. It’s dangerous. And I think this actually puts them now in a position where no one can trust them to accurately describe anything. And that severely harms the cause of feminism in the atheism movement.

Had they preserved their credibility by conducting or calling for proper investigations before making conclusory declarations (had they heeded, in other words, lawyer Ken White’s own advice to them), they could have continued to help real victims of genuinely egregious behavior. But now, because they have described as ‘severe’ behavior that isn’t, and because they have so inaccurately portrayed what happened, and because they have engaged no competent process to even ascertain whether it was true, no claim they make in future can be trusted. It will be suspect as being wildly inaccurate and incompetently investigated.

Unless they make major and public changes to their standards of conduct when dealing with serious accusations like this in future. They need to declare and commit to explicit standards that are actually and reliably capable of discovering false accusations (like the Amy Frank accusation, which has evidence against it that any competent investigation would uncover) and that will accurately describe the facts of a case (meeting legal standards as well as journalistic). Until they do that, they’ve destroyed their ability to advocate for victims. They have also handed a coup to anti-feminists, who oppose the legitimate causes of feminism by claiming all feminism must be toxic owing to the very things on display here: a dangerous credulity and exaggeration of facts. I believe The Orbit and FreethoughtBlogs have a lot of work to do to repair this damage and rebuild their credibility.

It should now be clear that from now on, certainly we should take accusations seriously and not dismiss them out of hand, but the only correct and responsible public response to any serious accusation is, “We demand a formal investigation by a competent party.” And then pressing that point, and that alone, until it happens. And then wait for that investigation to be concluded and its results published, or for either the accuser or the accused to refuse to cooperate with it, before issuing judgments.

It is precisely to protect the innocent, even when innocence is rare, that this is the epistemology adopted by every reliable court and organization in the free world. Certainly there are problems with the way many courts and organizations handle investigations, problems we also need to continue pressing to be changed; but those problems cannot be addressed by simply believing every claim made without any competent investigation at all. The solution is not condemning everyone about whom anything is ever said. The solution is the pursuit of actual social justice. Which must mean justice for everyone. We cannot build justice on a foundation of injustice.

6 comments

  1. Andrew July 30, 2016, 1:05 pm

    Sorry you are going through all this. I cancelled my plans to attend Skepticon 9 this year and in the future until they have more ethical and honest leadership.

    Reply
    1. Steven C Watson July 30, 2016, 3:39 pm

      Sad. I was half expecting things at FtB to unravel when folk began decamping to the likes of Patheos. I didn’t understand why the Orbit was set up, unless those who did wanted their own echo-chamber. You give people generous shout-outs and welcomes and you get this?

      PZ I don’t understand at all, he should get all this especially considering how careful he was with the Shermer ‘grenade’ of a while back. Perhaps he just pussys around the so-called powerful and thinks it is okay to punch down or across.

      Whatever; his blog seems very cliquish, prone to groupthink, hearing only what they want to hear, and an echo-chamber. Small, isolated groups seem to fall into this mode without noticing and you find them turning on their colleagues. A road bump happens and suddenly for no reason you can work out they haven’t got your back and indeed want to turn the knife.

      Hopefully these parties will come to their senses sooner rather than later, cease and desist, retract and apologise, and you can move on.

      Speaking of moving, I hope your relocation across country has gone well and wish you all the best in your new home.
      TTFN

      Reply
  2. August Berkshire July 31, 2016, 1:11 am

    I am not a patron but perhaps you’d like to post and answer this anyway. You have offered explanations for many things but not for the following. As a point of information, I do not understand what case you’d have against the FtB and Orbit networks. The networks do not employ the bloggers, nor is there an employed editor who makes the decision to publish the posts against you. They are self-published. It would seem to me that this is not comparable to the New York Times publishing something but rather akin to a private citizen making an accusation against you on a bus. You can’t sue the bus company, can you?

    Reply
    1. They both have statements on record that indicates that they engage in content control. And content control makes them liable, in the same fashion as, for example, the New York Times. The mere fact that FtB suspended my account demonstrates they engage in content control, as does the fact that they have and deployed an ethics committee to decide who can continue blogging there; they are therefore legally equivalent to a newspaper, and not to, for example, Facebook or Patheos. The Orbit likewise states that it is an operating collective that coordinates its activity among its content providers, and their providers run the network, which evinces similar content control responsibility; they also no doubt have the equivalent of an ethics committee; likewise on departing FtB one of their stated goals to us was to have more control over the network and who blogs there and on what. So unless they are willing to commit perjury, they can’t claim they aren’t collectively responsible for their network’s content. Nor do I think they would honestly try that, since it contradicts their values to claim disinterest in whether their members use the network for defaming other persons.

      Reply
  3. I haven’t been a party to any of this but I can say that as the organizer if the Imagine No Religion conferences, and having had Richard as a speaker, this episode has unfortunately become the norm. Our conference has never had even one such complaint in 6 years but that doesn’t seem to matter to these folks. They continue to make outrageous statements on social media and last year went so far as to suggest a boycott of our event because Michael Shermer was a speaker. It seems that you have now been targeted by the same gang. No concern for the truth and certainly no concern for any evidence. When I asked for any evidence that anything like this has ever happened at INR the response was, “we’ve heard some things”. I went to great lengths to investigate on my own the charges against Shermer and I have to say that most if not all of them were based on nothing but hearsay and innuendo. The most serious allegation against him, rape, has so little credibility it strains the boundaries of credulity. This continuous and outrageous behaviour has made being involved in this movement and trying to organize a conference something that I wouldn’t suggest anyone get involved in at any level. It has made it difficult to get any male speakers because apparently all it takes is one groundless accusation and your career is over. So now it’s your turn Richard and I can only say that I hope in the future you will apply the same concerns to others that you want us to apply to you. I would have no hesitation in inviting you to speak at our conference again, and I can only hope that your response will evoke some measure of concern among all of us who care about this movement. Skepticism and evidence should be the order of the day as opposed to what we have now which is just simply rumour and innuendo.

    Reply

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