The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), with an annual budget of some $10 million, serves as an advocacy group for museums, including setting core standards.

AAM is having its 2018 Annual Meeting in Phoenix on May 6-9, 2018. A reader forwarded me an announcement from AAM with regard to a new Code of Conduct applicable to attendees at the Annual Meeting. That Code of Conduct amounts to a speech code restricting acceptable speech in ways that reflect how deeply identity politics has permeated even the museum industry.

A reader called my attention to an April 30, 2018, announcement by AAM’s Member Services Manager regarding AAM’s new Code of Conduct applicable to the 2018 Annual Meeting, Encouraging Respectful, Productive Dialogues: Introducing AAM’s New Code of Conduct, which starts:

… As a member of the Membership department here at the Alliance, I was excited to have the opportunity to join the Inclusion team and to collaborate on some great projects with some amazing staff. I believe that the work of diversity and inclusion should be an institution-wide effort, especially in outward-facing departments such as my own. Most recently in Membership, we’ve made a change to the prefix options available when signing up for a profile on our website. We’ve added the gender-neutral Mx. in addition to Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc., making it easier for our members to pick a title that best fits them. Please let us know if there is another option that you would like to see represented!

Last year, AAM’s Inclusion Team introduced a number of new offerings at the AAM Annual Meeting designed to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all attendees. This year, the Inclusion Team has led the effort to create a Code of Conduct for AAM events….

The announcement then goes on to discuss the implications of the new Code of Conduct on speech. It does so with a linguistic sleight of hand, by professing to preserve “free and open dialogue,” but defining dialogue it doesn’t like as “actions and behaviors.” The Code of Conduct is as much a speech code as it is a conduct code:

Having a code of conduct creates a mutual sense of accountability at the Annual Meeting–both from our attendees and from us here at AAM. The code provides an easy-to-reference guide on what are expected behaviors. It also gives a reporting structure for any incidents that may occur. We’ve also clearly stated what consequences for violating the Code of Conduct look like.

In creating a code of conduct, our goal was to provide our participants with a “brave space,” a concept introduced to us by Sage Morgan-Hubbard, our own Ford W. Bell Fellow for Museums & P-12 Education. “Brave spaces” are places to freely discuss ideas, with a few guidelines in place to keep our interactions respectful and productive. We would never want to stifle discussions or infringe on free speech, but we had to find a way to protect the most vulnerable populations among us. In our Code of Conduct, we chose to focus on limiting behaviors that impact the freedom and safety of marginalized populations, rather than telling participants what opinions they are allowed to hold…

Our Code of Conduct is not intended to limit free and open dialogue. It does place limits on what actions are acceptable at our meeting and events….

In short, our Code of Conduct describes and limits the types of actions and behaviors that affect the safety of all participants at our annual meeting and other events….


When one looks at the Code of Conduct, however, the standards of what is and what is not acceptable speech follow clear identity politics lines.

The Code of Conduct, by its terms applies to all AAM events, not just the annual meeting:

This Code of Conduct applies to all AAM events, including all conference venues and conference-related social activities at the AAM Annual Meeting.

“Discrimination” and “harassment” are prohibited. Most of the specific categories are not surprising and you would expect to find in many organizational conduct codes. Of note, though, is the heavy emphasis on protecting individual versions of “lived experience,” a term defined to only apply to members of a “minority or oppressed” group. So minimizing the lived experience of a non-minority or non-oppressed group member is okay (underscoring added):

Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of others based on human difference.

Harassment includes, but is not limited to:

  • Comments or actions that minimize a person’s lived experiences[i], identity, or safety
  • Deliberate misgendering or use of “dead”[ii] or rejected names[iii]
  • Deliberate “outing” of any person’s lived experiences or identity without their consent
  • Sustained disruption of talks or other events
  • Physical contact without consent or after a request to stop
  • Unwelcome sexual attention
  • Deliberate intimidation or stalking of any kind – in person or online
  • Collection or distribution of harassing photography or recordings
  • Threats or acts of violence
  • Advocating for, or encouraging, any of the above behavior

[i] “lived experiences” means the first-hand accounts and impressions of living as a member of a minority or oppressed group.

[ii] “deadnaming” means to use someones old name. It specifically refers to the practice of deliberately referring to a trans person by their pre-transition name. Not only is it disrespectful, it can be considered an act of violence, especially when a person is not publicly out as trans.

[iii] “rejected name” can also include persons who have changed their names for non-transition related reasons such as relationships, political statements, etc. Malcolm X changed his name for very specific reasons related to his identity; it is disrespectful to refer to him as anything besides Malcolm X

More interesting than what is prohibited is the explanation of what is NOT considered prohibited discrimination or harassment (underscoring added):

Discrimination/Harassment is not:

  • Feeling persecuted for your social privilege
  • ‘Reverse’ -isms, including ‘reverse racism,’ ‘reverse sexism,’ and ‘cisphobia’
  • Reasonable communication of boundaries, such as “leave me alone,” “go away,” or “I’m not discussing this with you.”
  • Refusal to explain or debate social justice issues when the person being asked is put in a defensive position based on their lived experience, personal identity, or safety
  • Communication in a ‘tone’ you don’t find congenial
  • Discussion of sensitive topics
  • Criticizing racist, sexist, cissexist, or otherwise oppressive behavior or assumptions

That first bullet point seems to be making clear that the obsession with white privilege and other supposed privileges cannot be claimed to be discriminatory. So too, the reversal of prohibited conduct (racism, sexism, gender identity discrimination) is okay.

The fourth bullet point, combined with the explanation as to lived experience, creates an interesting situation. Reliance on empirical data and statistics could be a violation of the code if the effect is to “minimize” the anecdotal “lived experiences” of members of certain identity groups.

This certainly seems to skew “free and open dialogue” field based on identities. Whether speech rises to the level of prohibited conduct depends on the identities who is saying it and to whom it is said, or by whom and to whom conduct is directed. Some personal lived experiences are protected, while others are not. It’s all about identities and who can claim them.

Don’t think AAM’s speech regulation is an aberration. AAM notes it used a model provided by other group:

Attribution: This Code of Conduct is based on the example policy from the Geek Feminism wiki and uses language with permission from the Nonprofit Technology Conference’s Code of Conduct.

These identity-based speech codes masquerading as conduct codes are coming to an organization near you.