‘We Will Not Act’ on Complaints About Racist Harassment – Why Github’s Amy Palamountain is a Liability


Amy Palamountain. GitHub tried to stop her image appearing in this article. Why would she want her picture not to appear by her words? This image is derived from a photo released under CC-BY 2.0 by her fiancé Michael Holman (who goes by Martin Holman also). The license requires I credit him (awkward!) and link to the license – here. He has changed the licensing since then but the grant of the CC-BY 2.0 is irrevocable. Archive linked to show the license granted when I downloaded it – here .

Note – no private details are revealed in this article. All contact details have been put pro-actively and prominently into the public domain by their owners.

As a postgraduate law student who has been praised in Parliament for his pro-bono equalities work, and was asked to give evidence to the House of Lords Committee on the Mental Capacity Act 2005, I am frequently asked questions about equalities law. I am loathe to condemn even people whom I disagree with because of the complex and difficult issues they face.

Nonetheless several people this week have asked me for my legal opinion on the TODO Group ‘Open Code of Conduct’ (archive here) and I do feel some excoriation is in order. The TODO Group is a group of companies who “want to collaborate on practices, tools and other ways to run successful and effective open source projects”. They have recently published a Code of Conduct.

The issue that has attracted controversy is the ‘definition of harassment’ written by Github employee Amy Palamoutain. Much of this is unobjectionable, aside from prolixity. For example, the following are examples of behaviour that is prohibited –

“•Threats of violence, both physical and psychological
•Deliberate intimidation
•Stalking or following”

However, one passage has caused great offense. It says this –

“[…] We will not act on complaints regarding:

• ‘Reverse’ -isms, including ‘reverse racism,’ ‘reverse sexism,’ and ‘cisphobia’”

The language is somewhat vague. ‘Reverse’-isms such as ‘reverse racism’ typically mean discrimination against a majority by members of a minority. In the context of the harassment section where this appears we are presumably talking about racist or otherwise discriminatory harassment.

If interpreted as such, it says that some forms of harassment will not be punished. For example, (say) three white women follow a black woman around a conference calling out, ‘nigger’ that is harassment. However, does this policy mean if three non-white women follow a white woman around calling out ‘white whore’, her complaint will be ignored? Any assumption she is privileged is fatally flawed – what if she is a poorly paid clerk? A sex worker? Why would it be ok if she was privileged anyway?

Is it really ok to ignore racism or harassment complaints from women because of the colour of their skin?

If the poorly worded passage means something else that has yet to be clarified. GitHub’s only reply when I requested comment was an email from their legal department making vague references to ‘actionable’ ‘factual misrepresentations’ – saying that they dispute the facts but not saying which ones. They also objected to my use of the original photos intended for this article, forcing me to harvest photos from Flickr that had been released under Creative Commons licenses.

GitHub’s ‘legal’ email was embarrassingly poor. UK law requires libel claimants to mitigate their losses (Mawdsley v Guardian Newspapers [2002] EWHC 1780 (QB)). By failing to take the opportunity to correct pre-publication they have failed to mitigate 100% of their losses.

UK law requires libel claimants to comply with pre-action rules (like saying which facts you dispute). The penalty for incompliance with the pre-action rules are set out in Webb Resolutions Limited v Waller Needham & Green (a firm) [2012] EWHC 3529 (Ch). The defaulting party has to pay all the non-defaulting party’s costs even if they win the lawsuit. That is why I made a point of delaying publication to give them time to set out the facts disputed and offered to extend that time further. No reply to my offer was received.

Since GitHub wanted this article silenced and were prepared to make poorly veiled legal threats, I ask readers to help unsilence it. Post a link to it everywhere you know – not just KiA but every obscure little political forum, blog, news site – wherever – with a little blurb of your own. Tweet it repeatedly.

Commenting on the pull request that added the ‘reverse-isms’ language (archive here), users asked Palamountain to change it. She said, “This is a critical part of this PR and I will not be removing it […] do some research […] When we claim any reverse-sims, what we are really doing is derailing the conversation. Making it about the privileged again. This is erasure.”

If Ms Palamountain bothered to ‘do some research’ she would find that the ‘privilege’ of no group in the western world extends to a legal right to harass people.

The question I have been asked is, whether the policy is lawful? In the UK or US, if an employer adopted this policy, could they be sued? Well duh. Obviously this is not lawful. The Equality Act 2010 in the UK and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 in the US both prohibit racist workplace conduct against all persons regardless of race. To do otherwise would be prohibited by (in the EU), Article 13 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights and (in the US) by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Protection from discrimination includes protection from a ‘hostile working environment’, which again applies in the UK and US. Any company which says it is ok to harass some people can potentially be sued by all of those people regardless of whether they have actually been affected by the policy.

In the UK, s26 of the Equality Act 2010 would apply. Refusing to process an equalities complaint is also ‘Victimisation’ as defined under s27 Equality Act 2010. In addition perpetrators could be guilty of an offence under s2 Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Harassment is a crime. The policy as written by Ms Palamountain explicitly says that criminal conduct of this nature would be ignored in some cases by users of the policy.

Furthermore, not only employees but customers (including online customers and convention attendees) would be entitled to sue (see, for example, s29 Equality Act 2010). Furthermore their customers could be sued if they required any employee to work on the openly racist project. Worse for Ms Palamountain, UK law allows individual Defendants. Every single claimant could sue any individual responsible for discrimination.

Damages for discrimination include a head for ‘hurt feelings’ recognised in a case called, Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [2002] EWCA Civ 1871. The amounts for hurt feelings alone have been increased since the case was first decided and can now run to over £30,000.

Obviously, most racist harassment is directed at minorities. Society needs to recognise that. However, there is no reason to permit harassment of members of the ‘majority’ group. In reality it is often weaker or more vulnerable individuals in the so-called ‘dominant’ group – blatantly non-privileged individuals, who are the victims.

There have been occasional rare lawsuits for discrimination against whites or males. For example in the UK a fireman who was repeatedly subject of malicious harassment complaints was awarded £100,000 because treating someone accused of harassment less favourably due to their sex is sexism. Similar judgements have occurred in the United States.

Of course GitHub itself is unlikely to experience ‘reverse’ racist harassment because of the proportion of minorities it employs. Despite being distributed world-wide there is a certain … commonality of hue … both in their group photo and in the wall of staff pictures on their website page. The only person of African heritage pictured in an avatar appears to be Eddie Murphy, although there is also a white guy in what looks like an afro-wig. There are a few minorities, some unfortunately placed near the bottom.

The problem with Palamountain’s work is that it is not only apparently unlawful if adopted, but that it brings the liberation and equalities movements into disrepute. By crassly enabling obviously wrongful conduct it undermines equalities in much the same way those who falsely allege rape harm real victims. Palamountain should be treated with the same disdain.

Unsurprisingly, concerns about the policy have been raised with the Github team. When a pull request was opened to remove the language objected to (archive here), several people from minorities condemned Palamo’s text. One person, who stated they were a Jewish descendent of refugees, said –

“I am one of the marginalised people this code of conduct is trying to prioritise. Ethically I’m a mixture of German-Jewish, Bulgarian-Jewish, and Polish-Jewish. Two generations ago my family were penniless refugees fleeing prosecution or, well most of them were dead.

This language @MrStonedOne wishes to remove is quite simply saying people are more acceptable as targets because of their their race, religion or sexuality. After how I was raised and what I was taught about my families history, I could never feel comfortable and would never attend any conference that said any group is a more acceptable target; not even a hint in that direction.”


Brandon Keepers. Despite his ineffectual appearance the only one of the GitHub types with the savvy not to release his image for commercial use. If I ever monetise I will have to take this down. This image is derived from a photo released under CC-BY-NC 2.0 by Brandon Dimcheff. The license requires I credit him and link to the license – here. The grant of the CC-BY-NC 2.0 is irrevocable. Archive linked to show the license granted when I downloaded it – here.

Responding, Brandon Keepers, the ‘Open Source Lead’ at GitHub locked the thread to seek feedback. He appeared to attempt to justify the language objected to by saying, “[…] the moderators of a community are going to have to make tradeoffs” It is unclear to your author what possible ‘tradeoff’ could even begin to justify permitting harassment. If that is not what the text means, it should be changed.

Since then, to his credit, Keepers has locked and ‘paused’ the Open Code of Conduct project. He says, “This template aims to equally protect against all forms of discrimination, and to protect people who are typically the target of harassment in open source” and also, “We are going to take a step back and pause activity on this project for now. We are consulting with stakeholders, community leaders, and legal professionals”.

At the start of this article I said I am loathe to condemn those involved in the equalities movement. Sometimes, however, it is necessary. Amy Palamountain has demonstrated she is a liability both to the movement and, indeed, to her employer. I do not have a problem with Amy Palamountain for her gender – and I condemn the trolls that do. I have a problem with her bigotry.

How can Palamountain be employed now in the technology industry? Even when the policy is inevitably changed or withdrawn, Palamountain will have a tainted reputation. Should she become involved in any dispute or discrimination matter, her past prejudices may be used against her. Internet searches will show up her remarks for years to come undermining her professional credibility.

The Chief Executive of Github is Chris Wanstrath. He publishes his email online on his profile. Github publicly seeks feedback and readers are entitled to give it to them. If you disagree that harassment should ever be tolerated then please say so politely to Mr Wanstrath.


GitHub Chief Executive Chris Wanstrath shown on the left flashing horns, a sign some people find offensive because they believe it is satanic. Also shown on the right with a beard. These images both derived from photos released under CC-BY 2.0 by Dave Fayram. The license requires I credit him and link to the license – here. The grant of the CC-BY 2.0 is irrevocable. Archives linked to show the license granted when I downloaded it for both source pictures – here and here .

It is likely in the extreme that GitHub does not wish its reputation to be damaged by appearing to say that racism or harassment of any kind should be permitted.

Matthew Hopkins News only reveals private information when there is a legitimate public interest. In this case it is not necessary as Palamountain, Keepers and Wanstrath have all currently or recently prominently published their email addresses.

A draft copy of this article was sent to GitHub pre-publication for comment. Their ‘lawyer’ did not object to publication of these contact details.

Chris Wanstrath (Chief Executive)
@Defunkt (Twitter)
@Defunkt (GitHub)

Amy Palamountain
@ammeep (Twitter)
@ammeep (GitHub)

Brandon Keepers
@bkeepers (Twitter)
@bkeepers (GitHub)

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12 thoughts on “‘We Will Not Act’ on Complaints About Racist Harassment – Why Github’s Amy Palamountain is a Liability

  1. This is what gets me about their code of conduct. Any racism, sexism, etc would already be covered by a blanket statement of not condoning harassment. Yet feeling the need to add qualifiers to that saying that they won’t be addressing those things if it’s against a ‘privileged’ group (which is an idiotic thing to do on an individual basis) is just asinine. I don’t condone sexism against women or men. I don’t condone racism against anyone. Just don’t discriminate based on those things. It’s not complicated. If you tell someone their opinion means less because of their skin color or sex, or sexual orientation you’re a bigot. It’s as simple as that and should be handled accordingly.

    The response to that would be something akin to ‘That assumes that everyone is already equal which isn’t the case.’ to which I sympathize and do feel work needs to be done on that front. It has nothing whatsoever to do with coding and/or the open source community. Anyone who brings race or gender into something anyone and everyone can contribute to is a part of the problem. Shut up and code.

    • I agree. It seems to me that there are some people within the equality community that do not actually understand what equality is and who also, sadly, engage in massaging their own egos by demonstrating the very same hatred and bigotry that they claim to oppose. In a sence, they actively engage in racism by proxy, sexism by proxy and all sort of other “isms” as they project their own prejudice and get great personal satisfaction from their sanctimonious, arrogant narcissism while doing so. The more they engage in projecting hatred, the better they feel about themselves.

      In my opinion, this is not only as bad as “regular” old-fashioned racism and prejudice, but is actually worse, because it is also highly hypocritical.

      Equality is equality. You do not change, or enhance, social equality by merely changing the target of unacceptable prejudice and then calling it acceptable hatred, acceptable bigotry or acceptable prejudice due to some self-regarded definition of “privilege”.

      Such hate filled people should be rooted out of the equality movement as their behaviour is equally as unacceptable as any Nazi, Fascist, communist or other extremist, in my humble opinion.

  2. Some have claimed that there are “catchall” phrases in the CoC which would penalize racial harassment by minorities regardless.

    That contradicts the content of it. They express that they literally will not pursue complaints about these types of behavior. That is an affirmative promise which overrides the more general clauses.

    “Pursuing complaints” is the mechanism by which complaints are dealt with. If you do not pursue a complaint, you pretty much do nothing about it. Here they have promised that they will not pursue complaints.

    For example, if your rules are:

    §1. Everyone must drive nicely.

    §2. Complaints that someone is overtaking at high speed will not be pursued.

    Then clause 1 is _not_ a “catchall” phrase that also covers overtaking at high speed. Clause 2 is not rendered irrelevant by clause 1, by reference to “well overtaking is not nice driving so it’s banned by clause 1”.

    When pursuing complaints is the method of enforcement and resolution, then an affirmative promise not to pursue a particular complaint takes predence over general promises to combat bad behavior.

  3. “‘Reverse’-isms such as ‘reverse racism’ typically mean discrimination against a majority by members of a minority.”

    That doesn’t make sense. There is no “majority” race (white people make up about 30% of the US population, for example). There *is* a majority gender (women, by a couple percentage points).

    So are they saying that sexism against men is now allowed, but sexism against women (the majority sex) is okay?

  4. Pingback: GitHub All COCed Up? | Black Trident Media

  5. I somehow regret that I forgot to mention in my original comment in the PR that the statement in question is actually illegal pretty much everywhere in EU and I suppose, by most part in the rest of the world as well.

  6. “The language is somewhat vague”…

    …so I’ll proceed to interpret it in the worst possible way in order to justify my participation in the harassment of an individual.

    Are you really so oblivious to how insular and mean-spirited your outlook appears to be?

  7. I guess it is time to find an alternative to github. I will not knowingly support an organization that permits harassment in any way, shape, or form.

    • I agree I will also be using an alternative in the future. I also know several other large developer firms which are doing the same. Looks like github has been taken over by radical feminists and I and many others as well it seems want nothing to do with them.

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