Thursday, September 27, 2012

Due Process and Expulsion

I recently received this plea from a West Coast friend about how to handle the possibility of a consensus group stripping a member of rights—one of the toughest choices a group can face.

On the topic of what is happening in my local Occupy group, I have a really important question.

In a document on committees that you shared with my community, you say that "involuntary removal of member rights," in the extreme case expulsion, should never happen in a committee. I need to be able to clearly articulate, by Thursday at 5 pm, why this is so important and true. Could you explain this?

For any group operating by consensus, I urge that the following four things be done in plenary, without exception (NB: I think it can be OK that a committee or subgroup drafts policy or makes recommendations to the plenary; the essential point I'm making is that decisions about the following matters should always be done in plenary, so that they're fully owned by the group):

A. Establishing explicitly what constitutes a member's rights and responsibilities.

B. Establishing explicitly what conditions or behaviors could lead to the involuntary loss of member rights (including expulsion).

C. Determining the process by which the claim that such conditions obtain or such behaviors have occurred will be examined. This step will include standards for explicitly notifying the member of their offending behavior and whether or not they'll be given an opportunity to correct it before sanctions are imposed.

D. Determining whether or not to invoke the group's right to strip or limit a member of his/her rights based on what comes out under C. (Note that it should have been spelled out in C that the person(s) in question will not be allowed to block in D.)

I think that groups must undertake all of these things in plenary because they are all foundational for the health and integrity of the group. Delegating to a committee the authority to expel or otherwise limit a member's rights seems to me an abdication of responsibility on the plenary's part, and will likely tear the group apart (independent of the question of whether someone's rights should be curtailed, there will be upset over the fact that such an action was taken without everyone's voice being heard). Everyone needs to own such an onerous step, and thus have a chance to speak to what they think is the right thing to do and why. If the whole group cannot agree to impose a sanction, then it shouldn't be taken.

(As an aside, I think it can be acceptable for committees, depending on the plenary's pleasure, to have the right to set their own rules about who is a member of that committee; I'm saying above that no committee should have the right to limit or strip a member of their rights with respect to the whole group.)

I expect part of what makes this hard is that there is probably an incomplete understanding of consensus in the Occupy group in question and it's probable that they are struggling to get clear about Steps B & C only as some believe it's appropriate to be doing D. Making up the rules while you are in the midst of applying them is a process nightmare, and generally comes across as a lynch mob. 

While it's not too hard to see the train wreck that this leads to, I also have considerable sympathy for groups that find themselves in this position. It's pretty hard to get motivated to spell out B & C until and unless there's a sense of need. Sadly, by the time you have a live need, you're dead in the water.

For a description of the kinds of persistent or urgent dynamics that can lead to asking someone to leave a group—the involuntary loss of all rights in the context of the group—see my posting of Feb 13, 2011: Knowing When It's Time to Ask Someone to Go.

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