By Gregory Kohs
The National Archives will be the site of a controversial “Diversity Conference” hosted jointly by the Wikimedia DC organization and the federally-funded Archives. The June 17-18 conference is billed as “open to everyone”, but that’s a small falsehood being presented to the public. Specifically, your trusty reporter who covers the Wikimedia movement (the mostly volunteer initiative to build the openly-edited Wikipedia encyclopedia and related reference projects) was banned from the event, and his ticket purchase rejected in less than four minutes. Neither Wikimedia DC nor the National Archives staff will disclose exactly why your convivial documentarian was banned.
Over the years, I’ve written dozens of news articles focusing on Wikimedia Foundation projects, events, and activities. I am publicly considered by other reputable journalists as a “watchdog” of the organization. My work for Examiner has been viewed by readers over 80,000 times. I helped launch and operate this website, Wikipediocracy.com, which is so recognized for its Wikipedia criticism that even Wikipedia feels obligated to have an article about it. I have also appeared twice on national television broadcasts, discussing the ins and outs of Wikipedia, most recently an in-depth interview with multi-Emmy winning investigative journalist, Sharyl Attkisson. For these reasons, one supposes, the Diversity Conference doesn’t want me covering the event, which only days ago swapped out its keynote speaker — replacing the controversial Zoe Quinn with a more conventional pro-Wikipedia editor, Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight.
My first tango with a Safe Space Committee
As background, last summer, I received an e-mail from the staff of the Wikimedia DC organization that I was banned from ever attending any of their events, even though I had never been to one of their events before. I asked what cause was given for my event ban, and they would only say that their “Safe Space Committee” made the decision. They would not say what prompted the decision, nor would they divulge who sits on the Committee.
Then, in October 2015, the Wikimedia DC group and the Wiki Education Foundation cooperated with the National Archives to host a “WikiConference USA 2015” event. The National Archives described this event as follows:
WikiConference USA is open to anyone, regardless of their involvement with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia projects. We welcome the curious, the skeptical, and anyone wishing to engage in meaningful conversation about the Wikimedia movement in the United States, free culture and digital rights advocacy and outreach, community building, and technology.
According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request (a difficult inquiry completed by a very talented and persistent Archives employee, Wanda Williams), we learn that Archives events manager Quinn Bruster had advised another Archives employee, Dominic Byrd-McDevitt (who is a Wikipedia enthusiast), and the Wikimedia DC and Wiki Education organizations that the National Archives is passionate about being open to all people, and that if any attendees were going to be barred entry, the list of these individuals had to be shared with the National Archives. However, the organizations never shared any such list with the staff of the Archives, even though they were certainly event-banning multiple people. So, against procedures, they effectively held a “semi-closed” event that the Archives had been led to believe would be “open to anyone.”
At Wikiconference USA 2015, despite all of the hard work done in advance by the nameless, faceless Safe Space Committee, the event still had a sexual harassment incident reported. Special Event Coordinator Liz Pickford issued an official report that the event’s privately-hired security firm responded to a woman’s complaint that she had received ongoing “verbal sexual harassment” from a bearded male attendee wearing a red shirt. The accused male was asked to leave the premises, and he did. To date, neither he nor the complainant have been identified by name to the public.
In March 2016, the Wikimedia Foundation seemed to be following in the vanguard of the Wikimedia DC organization, by adopting its own version of an “Event Ban Policy”. One of the policy authors, Wikimedia Foundation employee James Alexander was asked about the authority of Wikimedia chapters to ban without explanation people from federal property, while advertising events as “open to anyone.” Even though Alexander said in March that he intended to respond, and then again (by e-mail) said on May 24th that he was “certainly hoping to get it off my plate ASAP,” the question remains entirely unanswered.
Safe Space: 2016
And now there will be a Diversity Conference held at the National Archives, and the event coordinators are pulling the same scheme all over again. Neither Byrd-McDevitt nor Bruster will respond to postal mail, e-mail, or voicemail, asking why this conference is blocking access to some attendees, while advertising it as “open to all.” The National Archives public relations specialist would only give a prepared answer:
The National Archives building in Washington, DC, is open to the public, in accordance with NARA’s regulations at 36 C.F.R. Part 1280, which set forth our rules of conduct. Individuals who abide by these rules are welcome in our public spaces. However, when events, such as the Wikimedia Diversity Conference, are organized by a private party, that organization sets its own admission policy and agenda for its program, and it is responsible for determining whether someone may or may not attend the event.
Yet, the conference web page indicates that the National Archives itself is a co-host of the event, along with the privately-operated Wikimedia DC. Federal tax dollars are funding space for a clandestinely discriminatory organization to take up residence for the weekend in one of America’s most hallowed locations.
As a test, using a pre-paid Visa gift card, another registration for the Diversity Conference was attempted, paying the $10 registration fee, but using a fictitious name and a falsified mailing address. That registration has not been detected by the “Safe Space Committee”, and so it begs the question — how safe will conference attendees be, if the safety committee is spending its time keeping a harmless journalist out of the meeting, while allowing passage to someone with a fake name and fake contact information, who could actually be a dangerous person?