Sci-fi Convention, Penn State Serve as Liability Reminders

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Sci-fi Con

July 30, 2012; Source: The Daily Dot

A reader’s tip about this article about sexual harassment at the “Readercon” sci-fi convention made us reexamine an issue about the Penn State affair that might concern nonprofits. Readercon is a science fiction literature convention run totally by volunteers. Unlike Comic-Con, which the NPQ Newswire mentioned recently, Readercon is not for cosplayers or computer gamers and doesn’t display anime- and manga-derived sci-fi artistry. It’s about science fiction writing and writers.

This year’s Readercon has generated a vigorous blogosphere debate over one convention-goer’s report of sexual harassment by sci-fi author Rene Walling and this allegation about Walling led to another Readercon attendee reporting additional incidents also attributed to Walling.

It seems the open dynamic of conventions makes the possibility of harassment a real problem. Readercon has a zero-tolerance policy on harassment, but in the case of Walling, its definition of zero-tolerance was to suspend his Readercon membership for “at least” two years. The online reaction has been stridently critical of Readercon’s board.

This Daily Dot article was an eye-opening introduction to the nonprofit-sponsored or volunteer-operated fan conventions, with links to scads of blogs, tweets, and more. We found not only vigorous debate about Readercon, but also the Con Anti-Harassment Project meant “to encourage fandom, geek community and other non-business conventions to establish, articulate and act upon anti-harassment policies, especially sexual harassment policies.”

We don’t know the details of the charges against Walling other than what was written in the Daily Dot and a couple of other blogs (such as posts by Genevieve Valentine here and here and Mike Glyer’s post here) nor do we have any information about Walling’s explanation or defense other than this statement from the Readercon board of directors referencing an expression of contrition on Walling’s part.

However, if Readercon is an all-volunteer group (we haven’t located the organization on Guidestar), one wonders if the organization’s policy is a defense if one of the aggrieved con participants were to take some sort of legal action. Does Readercon have officers’ liability insurance to cover the organization against legal action? Would reference to the policy and the Readercon board’s creation of the policy in 2008 (in response to an earlier reported incident) and its actions against Walling after this year’s allegations help defend the organization against the debilitating cost of legal action?

Think of a much more heavyweight institution like Penn State. It receives substantial funding from taxpayer-supported governmental agencies ($900 million) and charitable donors ($300 million), not to mention millions more from student tuition and fee payments. School officials have said that Penn State’s general liability and officers-and-directors liability insurance policies will cover all anticipated costs from litigation, so that donors, students, and taxpayers won’t be footing the bill for the blowback from the Sandusky convictions involving incidents that occurred on Penn State property or allegations of cover-ups by Penn State officials. However, reports are that the insurers don’t agree. The Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association Insurance Company, which has covered Penn State for decades, has told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it doesn’t intend to pay for Penn State’s costs in expected victims’ lawsuits, citing limitations and exclusions in its policies concerning claims of “bodily injury and mental anguish,” “intentional acts,” and charging that school administrators covered up their knowledge of Sandusky’s criminal acts, which the insurance company argues is another reason it should not have to pay.

Has your nonprofit checked out its liability coverage recently? –Rick Cohen

  • Jane Garthson

    I’ve been following this issue, and am part of a running a fan-run convention myself. Many are not registered charities so wouldn’t appear on Guidestar; I don’t know the legal name or status of this one.

    I am writing because Rick very correctly says this is an event for writers and readers. THERE WOULD BE NO COSTUMES. Choosing a photo from a masquerade event at what is called a “gencon”, meaning multiple tracks including costuming, is highly inappropriate. It may look more sensational but I expect better of NPQ.

    I’m a subscriber and often recommend NPQ. The point here – review your insurance – is excellent. But most of the conrunners i could send this URL to would never get past the irrelevant and annoying photo.

  • J. Andrews

    I agree, especially on your point about the photo. I saw another article referencing this event with a photo of people in costume. An actual photo from Readercon would look, well, probably fairly boring. Like any professional conference, only with people dressed more casually. Unless you found someone in a Cthulhu shirt. 🙂

    I also must object to the article referring to Valentine as a ‘con-goer’ and Walling as an ‘author’. Valentine is the author. Walling is primarily just a fan.

    As a point to help research, many cons are run by non-profit organizations that have different names from the convention itself. Although Readercon’s website seems to be owned by Readercon, Inc. So maybe that’s not the case in this case.

  • Eugene Fram

    I live in a condo housing complex. The condo board decided to conduct some fire drills with the aid of the local fire department.
    One board member suggested we review our program with legal counsel. We immediately dropped the project because neither our D&O policy nor our state charter allowed us to conduct these drills. The potential board personal liability was substantial.

    For some other perspectives on these and other board related issues see:

  • Jon Baker

    As the article states, “Readercon is not for cosplayers or computer gamers and doesn’t display anime- and manga-derived sci-fi artistry. It’s about science fiction writing and writers.”.

    So why is it illustrated with an array of people in costumes?

    Could it be … sensationalism?!?

    BTW, the convention’s board has resigned en masse, the convention has retracted its non-compliant decision and is going to follow its stated policy, and they are taking other actions in expiation of their sins.