What Is Not in Dispute

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.

This is consistent with the non-response. CFI does support a policy of silence on these cases–or they did until today.

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.

What Is Not in Dispute
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31 thoughts on “What Is Not in Dispute

  1. 2

    Ron Lindsay also thought it was important to break his Vow of Silence to let me know that he hand-picked a woman to be the investigator… I guess in order to bolster his claim that no sexism can exist in an organization that continues to employ a known sexual predator and is making legal claims against the victim of that predator.

  2. 3

    That struck me, too. He had no interest in defending Ben Radford, just CFI. However, his defense still has them taking years to do anything about a serious and persistent harasser and leaving a position with a lot of authority even after they acted. They just want us to know that they did punish him a little eventually and had a policy. That’s not much of a defense.

  3. 4

    I agree with hjhornbeck– this is a fantastic analysis! While I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be on your bad side, I don’t buy the implication that this analysis is at all vicious. In fact, its objectivity and the care you take to point out Lindsay’s improvements in CFI culture are a great strength. It’s just because being on your bad side would almost certainly mean I was (a) wrong and (b) being defensive or worse about it.

    I hope the side effects of the new meds that were giving you trouble have calmed down. If not, I’d love to see what you come up with when you’re awake 12 or more hours a day!

  4. 5

    Martha @4:

    While I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be on your bad side, I don’t buy the implication that this analysis is at all vicious.

    The most vicious thing in existence is the truth. 😉

  5. 6

    hjhornbeck @5 LOL. I didn’t think you meant that the analysis is unfair– I was just bowled over by how even-handed and clear-headed it is. Not that I’m surprised, of course.

  6. 7

    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.

    This also baffles me, especially given that Lindsay is publicly corroborating the sexual harassment Karen experienced at CFI. They could have issued an public apology to Karen and reassured donors that they take sexual harassment reports seriously. Looking back at RW’s post on skepchick about Karen’s post, that Lindsay linked to in the letter to SciAm, and other than wondering why somebody who is a known sexual harasser is still employed (a damn good question, given the “male stripper” case Lindsay brought up), there wasn’t a single direct mention of CFI or any ad hominem vilification of them (no requests to stop donating, etc). Of course, the links to CFI are clear and I don’t doubt the claim that this could be damaging to donations, but it’s almost like Lindsay has bought into the anti-RW propaganda gospel. Three words for you Ron: Don’t do that. 🙂

  7. 8

    Dr Lindsay claims a ‘zero tolerance’ sexual harassment policy, but such a policy would preclude Radford’s continuing employment with CFI, as it has NOT, this is not a zero tolerance policy, He is also disingenuous by saying there is nothing to prevent Dr Stollznow from returning to continue to work with her abuser after such a lackluster disciplinary action.

  8. 9

    He is also disingenuous by saying there is nothing to prevent Dr Stollznow from returning to continue to work with her abuser after such a lackluster disciplinary action.

    Hell’s teeth! Even the best run organisations take such an arrangement very, very gingerly.

    This is very, far too much, reminiscent of the purblind schoolteacher telling a shuddering victim that it’s okay to walk home along that street because the bullies have apologised and I’m sure they won’t do it again.

  9. 11

    So Lindsay has some minor quibbles (which probably seem major to him) about Stollznow’s SciAm post. Considering Lindsay’s past history, especially his antics at WiS2 and the aftermath, I have a great deal of difficulty finding any sympathy for his claims that CFI actively supports women and deals firmly with sexual harassment. It should be noted that Radford still has a job at CFI and Stollznow doesn’t.

  10. 12

    So basically, in response to the claim that CFI disciplines lightly, his defense pretty much is to say they rarely discipline at all? Did he really think that through before writing that?

  11. 13

    I think that story about the male stripper is probably the most significant thing in there. In response to claims that CFI treats harassment lightly, Lindsay cites a circumstance where a single instance of non-assaulting conduct resulted in an employee’s immediate termination, but an extended bout of harassing behavior, including assault, does not. At best, this shows that Radford was indeed punished very lightly. At worst, it reeks of favoritism, sexism, and Lindsay’s incompetence. Bit of an own goal there, Ron.

  12. 14

    What I find interesting is that Lindsay refers only to sexual harassment. My reading of Dr. Stllznow’s account was that it was clearly a case of sexual assault. Is this an attempt to minimize the incident?

  13. 19

    I believe that earlier today I saw Rebecca Watson, I think on some comment section somewhere, state that she personally knows that the CFI employee terminated in the male-stripper incident was himself male. Link if/when I can find where I saw it.

  14. 23

    If that is how they treat someone who even they admit is guilty of sexual harassment when they have a zero tolerance policy, I hate to think how they would treat them if there wasn’t such a policy. Probably just pat him on the back and tell him not to be so obvious about it next time so as to allow room for deniability.

  15. 24

    In remembering how big of a blowback Lindsay’s WIS2 address created before his entirely inadequate mea culpa, I’m wondering why this news isn’t creating an even bigger splash. In attempting to defend CFI, Ron actually admitted that a) he and/or his organisation have no clue what zero tolerance actually means and (b) that a potential serial harasser/assaulter is still active within the organisation.

    It is becoming painfully clear that not only is Lindsay not able or willing to change the culture of CFI, there are at least some members of CFI’s board who are perfectly okay with the status quo. I hope that CFI’s local chapters, major donors and distinguished speakers/panelists keep on expressing their displeasure in ways that matter too much (also in numbers that are too large) to be ignored any longer. There is only one path that CFI’s leadership can navigate successfully to eventually save their sinking ship and it is to fully admit their mistakes, co-operate fully with criminal proceedings, fairly compensate victims, cut ties with perverts, and enlist fully independent investigators of sexual harassment/assault claims so that they do better in the future. And I honestly don’t think Ron’s the captain they want leading them down that road; he has proven that he does not really understand why we’re all so bloody angry about recent failings.

    CFI may not speak for all atheists, but as with other secular organisations and prominent atheists, even if they make this fact clear, they are a voice associated with the secular cause and therefore with each and every nonbeliever. By acting as they are, they are proving that the failure of the Catholic Church to find and eliminate the rot from their boys’ club could happen anywhere, and that rejecting religion can be independent of striving to do better, to BE better, to act ethically. Of course, both statements are 100% true. But in order to convince individuals who are questioning their faith that rejecting religion is not only rational but compatible with living a morally accountable life, we need our organisations to be better versions of the churches, mosques, shrines and synagogues we’re asking people to consider giving up. Not only do our organisations need to provide some of the social function that many people seem to need (and which religious organisations often provide), we need to ensure that all people have mostly positive experiences with actual atheists and atheist organisations (and since we only have direct control over the latter, it’s even more important to get it right as often as we can).

    I don’t mean we shouldn’t make people uncomfortable with their current beliefs, far from it, just that we should go above and beyond to make sure that our organisations really ARE learning from past failures (ours and those of religious organisations). This isn’t limited, by the way, to strict rules governing acceptable behavior at official events or ensuring that grievances against those acting on behalf of our organisations are seriously and thoroughly investigated and result in proportionate consequences for perpetrators (which could include suspension, dismissal, civil action, and police notification and co-operation in cases in which evidence shows a crime may have been committed), although that’s all really important. The most crucial attribute we must have is transparency. Yes, there may be cases in which the possibility of a lawsuit or criminal trial prevents those who speak for our organisations from sharing information with the public, but our justice has to be seen to be effective. Victims need to be heard, taken seriously, and informed about the status of their grievance. And our brothers and sisters in unbelief need to be:

    1) Treated with respect at our events;

    2) Safe when they are engaging with our organisations (as participants, members, volunteers or employees); and

    3) Confident that in the in the very unlikely event they are harmed by an employee of an atheist organisation or at an official event, the organisation will do everything in its power to investigate the incident(s) to the victim’s satisfaction and to protect the victim, possible future victims, and the organisation (in that order) from the perpetrator.

    We can only claim the moral high ground in the case against religion if we build our community in such a way that it is only suited to those who value reducing suffering and increasing well-being, not just in our group but in society at large. To satisfy one’s own ego by shattering someone else’s is not just maladaptive from an evolutionary point of view or counterproductive to the growth of our community, it is a violation of the human rights we all share. By diligently defending these rights, we will lose a few predators and self-obsessed jerks, but we will make it possible for more people to be fighting our fight, people from segments of society into which atheism has never really penetrated, with perspectives foreign to most of us. By swallowing our pride and admitting that we can learn from these individuals and become better for it, more people will hear our message and throw off the shackles of superstition. Yes, our culture will end up changing, but who says that’s a bad thing?

  16. 25

    I know that I’m late to the party, but it strikes me that the whole conduct of CFI is one big piece of victim blaming.
    The facts of Radford’s behaviour are not in dispute. Everything but terminating his contract means that it’s apparently something about Dr. Stollznow that made him behave that way and that it is responsible and safe to have him around women who are not Dr. Stollznow.

  17. 26

    Gileiell @24, your comment sparked a thought in my head: maybe someone high up in CFI thinks it’s more responsible and safe to have Radford where they can keep a close eye on him than to unleash him on a different unsuspecting employer. Of course, that assumes that someone high up in CFI is thinking. And that they think that a new employer wouldn’t Google the guy.

  18. 28

    Dave W
    I doubt it. Because it’s the same. old. story: Whenever harassment, bullying etc. occur people act as if there was something about the victim that caused the problem. If the victim just behaved differently or disappeared then everything would be alright with that person.
    If somebody thought that then they were fucking idiots because it’s apparently obvious that they’re doing a poor job at keeping women safe and avoiding damage to their institution.

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