A Case of Conscience

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Jeremy Brett addressing the issue of discriminatory legislation and SAA annual meetings. At the end of this post, please take a moment to partake in an I&A Poll on the issue. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com.

We’ve all seen the recent uptick across the nation in nauseatingly unjust legislation laughingly designed to protect “religious freedom” and “public safety” but which is clearly motivated to sanction prejudice against the LGBT community. The legislature of North Carolina just passed, and Governor Pat McCrory signed, a new law blocking transgender individuals from using public restrooms that match their gender identity and stops cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances to protect gay and transgender people. The Georgia legislature just passed a law that would have allowed pastors to refuse to perform gay marriages and allow churches and faith-based groups, on the basis of religious belief, to refuse to hire or provide services to gays. The bill was vetoed by Governor Nathan Deal as discriminatory, and was met before the veto with a hail of protests from both LGBT groups and major corporations. Similar bills have been proposed over the last several years. In 2015 the Human Rights Campaign noted that more than 85 anti-LGBT bills had been filed in 28 states, though fortunately most of these have failed to pass or have been challenged in court.

Of course, such legislation is repugnant – or it should be – to any thinking human being who possesses any discernable degree of compassion or common sense. However, the question before us now is, what can we as a professional association do to challenge or protest these kinds of laws? This question loomed large recently because it did appear that the law in Georgia would pass, and that would leave SAA in a position where we would have to hold our 2016 Annual Meeting (site: Atlanta) in a state actively and vocally hostile to LGBT individuals. SAA members would be obliged to spend money in the economy of a state that would have enshrined fear and prejudice and ignorance into law. Fortunately, Governor Deal’s veto prevented this. However, I consider this sort of situation unjust and a violation of personal conscience.

We are archivists. We are information professionals and we are custodians of history. As such, we are agents of preserving and transmitting knowledge for the good of society, and I do not believe that we should be compromising that responsibility by providing money to governments and public officials who do not have society’s best interests at heart. Nor as a professional organization should we be tacitly granting second-class citizenship to our LGBT members, which we would be doing by giving our dollars and our time to a state or municipality that choses to wage war against a minority group. I think that one of the most effective things we can do is to cease holding Annual Meetings or any other significant SAA-sponsored activity in any state or municipality that enacts this kind of hateful legislation.

Of course there are objections that can be raised to this proposal.

  1. Contracts for Annual Meeting sites are negotiated years in advance, and it is difficult to not only break these contracts but to locate a new and appropriate venue in a reasonable amount of time.

True enough, but I would argue that, going forward, SAA could insist on a ‘conscience clause’ in its contracts with venues that would allow for us to break the contract should the host state or municipality enact noxious legislation. In addition, host selectors should be required to research potential sites for future meetings to see whether these kinds of laws are present and being enforced.

 I would also note that, yes, it’s not easy to turn on a dime and find a new venue on short notice, but it does and can happen. In 2011 the American Sociological Association (a group bigger than we are, by the way) was scheduled to have its Annual Meeting (held in August) in Chicago, but a short nine months before the meeting, the ASA decided to cancel its contracts because of a protracted labor dispute between Chicago hotels and the hotel workers’ union. Within one month they had negotiated a contract and moved the conference venue to Las Vegas, with minimal disruption.

  1. Conference venues are selected to ensure a variety of locations in order that more members, some of whom may have trouble attending far-distant events, may be able to attend.

That’s a fair point, and I realize that this could prove a hardship to members living in places like North Carolina or other states where these kinds of laws have been passed. I live in Texas, and am perfectly aware that there are reasonable objections to holding events in my own state and if SAA were to stop having events here it would make it more expensive and difficult for me to attend them elsewhere. But I believe that we owe it to ourselves and citizens and to our colleagues who are LGBT (or any other persecuted group) and are affected by these kinds of laws to take a stand and to make sacrifices when necessary. Perhaps this kind of policy I propose could motivate SAA to develop more effective ways for members to attend and participate in SAA events remotely, and make physical attendance less necessary.

Yes, this policy would mean a (hopefully temporary) end to holding our Annual Meetings in certain states, and as a result we would be favoring others. To which I say: Exactly. States with progressive legislation or that have the moral courage to stand against prejudice and injustice should be rewarded with our commerce; those who give in to hate and fear should be punished by the withdrawal from them of our dollars and our attention.

  1. “But where will this end? I can find objectionable laws in probably every state. Why should certain laws be declared more evil than others? Where do we draw the line? And who are we to judge?”

 I know there are people reading this that are thinking this very thing. And I confess that I’m not sure: this is a question that would benefit from consulting the membership at large. But I am optimistic that we can establish a baseline of common human decency where we can all agree that certain laws are unquestionably terrible and unworthy of a thinking society and our American ideals. Let’s have this debate, and at the end of it all, let’s stand up for what’s right and not support hate and fear and downright evil merely out of economic and logistical expedience.

Jeremy Brett is the Curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection at the Cushing Memorial Library & Archives at Texas A&M University. He is a past Chair and current Steering Committee member of the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable.

Now we’d like to know what you think. Please take a moment and go to our I&A Poll on Discriminatory Legislation and Annual Meetings. The poll will remain open until 5pm PST Friday, April 8.