As most of you know, the APA has recently released a statement on sexual harassment in the profession. It includes a lot to like, but as Eric Schliesser has pointed out, there is also some discussion to be had about the APA’s conclusory statement that certain punitive or ameliorative measures might expose the APA to “excessive legal liability.”
I don’t doubt that taking action might open the organization up to liability it would not otherwise face. Of course, lots of things we do every day expose us to legal liability: driving a car, buying a house, operating a business, getting married. We don’t usually consider that liability when we act except to the extent that the legal rules tend to conform to moral rules we already accept (exercising reasonable care in driving a car, say). Organizations or other large actors naturally need to consider liability more explicitly than individuals, so it makes sense that the APA may have consulted with a legal team in exploring its options. I don’t know what kind of liability that consultation may have raised fears about, but my best guess involves tort liability of various sorts.
As a result of the increased exposure of being an organizational actor, most such actors set up explicit terms and conditions on interacting with the organization. Think about all those terms you click “accept” to every day. Those, for the most part, are binding on you whether you read them or not.
Why doesn’t membership in the APA and use of the APA website come conditioned on terms that could limit the APA’s liability while giving it a basis for, e.g., withdrawing membership or denying conference registration?
When a person signs up for APA membership now, they just fill out information and pay the fee, but the membership could easily come on the condition that members agree to any number of things. (The only terms and conditions I could find on the APA website were for listserv rental.) Members could agree, for example, that their membership be contingent on being in good standing with their university/not in violation of any university policy. That kind of policy wouldn’t eliminate liability and enforcing it might raise secondary legal concerns, but as I expressed in my first post, we live in a world shaped and constrained by law. We’re never free from liability, so we have to decide what’s worth doing, who we’re scared of and why, and what kind of changes our system requires.