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When State Laws Challenge an Event’s Values

By Andrea Doyle

As the U.S. becomes more politically divided and companies and associations more engaged, a state has a greater chance to enact a law that may challenge an event’s ethics.

Pivot MIA, a conference focused on business and technology, pulled out of Florida in March after a bill was passed limiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

Vox Media, the company that produces Pivot, stated on its website: “As proud supporters of LGBTQ+ communities, we will not be hosting next year’s Pivot event in Florida now that the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill has been signed into law.”

Florida is one of a growing number of states that have passed recent bills said to roll back LGBTQ protections. According to the LGBTQ rights group Freedom for All Americans, 222 anti-LGTBQ bills have been introduced this year alone, with 18 passed into law.

What Does This Mean for Events?

“The legislation puts the health, safety, and welfare of not just the LGTBQ+ community at risk, but other marginalized groups, as well,” said Derrick M. Johnson, II, CMP, DES, Chair, LGBT Meeting Professionals Association and Chief Executive Officer, The Organization for Social Empact. “We can never take progress for granted. We must eradicate discrimination.”

Johnson said that a discriminatory attack on one marginalized group is the same as an attack on all. “Each person should have the human right to be their authentic self without shame, ridicule, and being shoved in the literal or figurative closet,” he said, adding that event planners can drive social and economic transformation within communities by connecting people.

Kara Swisher, an opinion writer for The New York Times, editor-at-large for New York Magazine, and a co-host of the Pivot podcast that inspired the event, tweeted about the Florida bill saying, “Shameful act by the Florida GOP. As a parent of four, this is not what it means to be one. To reiterate, a significantly expanded Pivot event – after an epic one there in February – that was going to take place in Miami in 2023 will not. Hey @jaredpolis, I’ll be in touch.” Jared Polis is the governor of Colorado.

This year’s Pivot event featured some of the biggest names in business and technology and included Brian Chesky, CEO and Co-founder of Airbnb; Sandeep Mathrani, CEO of WeWork; Meredith Kopit Levien, CEO of The New York Times; and David M. Solomon, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Francis Suarez, Miami’s mayor, welcomed the group to the conference that featured sessions focused on this tech-forward city. That will not be the case in 2023.

“We are actively searching for a new city to host the next Pivot event. Our goal is to host the event in a city and location where our attendees and fans can feel safe, comfortable, and welcome, and one whose policies align with the core values of the event, one of which is inclusivity,” Tara Reilly, VP, Experiential and Partnerships, Vox Media, said.

Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same, as evidenced by a much larger cancellation in Tennessee. The American Counseling Association (ACA), a not-for-profit, professional, and educational organization dedicated to the counseling profession, was on the books for Tennessee at the Music City Center for its annual conference in 2017.

After a law was passed prohibiting therapists from seeing patients based on religious values and personal principles, the ACA conference was canceled, with the group saying this bill discriminated against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and was an unprecedented attack on its profession in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics, by denying services to these individuals.

This conference was expected to bring approximately 4,000 people to Nashville, generating up to $4 million in combined local and state tax revenue and a local economic impact of approximately $10 million.

“The president of the association said, 'Before we talk about what it will cost to move the conference, we will talk about our integrity and code of ethics; not something we can put a price on,’” explained Richard Yep, CAE, FASAE, CEO, ACA.

After the decision was made to pull out of Tennessee, twenty cities came forward and offered to host the conference, with San Francisco winning the bid.

“Counselors have a strict code that talks about not abandoning their clients. We didn’t want to abandon our members in Tennessee by making this move,” Yep explained, and in keeping with their fairness to all doctrine, the Tennessee delegates were able to attend free of charge.

The decision to leave Tennessee directly resulted from the governor signing this controversial legislation into law. Fully cognizant of the need for clear communications, the ACA videotaped two different messages for its members as it waited for the governor’s decision. “One explained why we’re staying in Tennessee, and the other why we were pulling out,” Yep said. “In cases like this, communication is absolutely critical.”

What Can Planners Do?

“Planners can no longer just do the things they are so good at. They must now also focus on the politics and policies that can deep-six their events,” Yep said, urging planners to brainstorm with other planners, the public policy unit within an organization if there is one, and the board for help in destination selection. “It’s going to get tougher and tougher over the next few years, and planners must be attuned to what is going on. The current divisiveness we see politically will result in more legislation like this on the state level.”

Controversial bills and laws make it imperative that event planners keep abreast of legislation proposed in the states where they plan to hold events. In light of this, contracts are more important than ever. Therefore, provisions and clauses should be created that focus on the organization’s values and gives them the power to cancel a contract if a law is enacted that goes against them.

After the Tennessee incident, ACA now includes a specific clause in all of its contracts that states that the association has the right to pull the show if a city or state enacts any positions or policies counter to ACA’s inclusive code of ethics.

John S. Foster, CHME, an attorney with Foster, Jensen & Gulley, added that it is not always as easy as just adding a clause.

“Organizations should first realize that there is no contractual right to terminate a contract without liability because of a law passed by the host state unless the contract specifically provides for it,” Foster said. “A company or association that has strong political views about certain issues, such as civil rights, abortion, gender education, LGBT+, issues must provide for the right to terminate its contract in writing if certain laws, executive actions, or appellate decisions that touch on these issues takes place in the city, county or state before the contracted event.”

Foster shares a sample clause that should be crafted to address the specific concerns of a company or organization holding the event. ABC (event sponsor) shall have the right to terminate this agreement without liability if the proposal or actual passage of any statute, ordinance, or executive order by the city, state, county or other municipality where the Event is scheduled to be held infringes upon the civil rights of any group or community, or a decision is issued by an appellate court with jurisdiction over the city, state, county, or other municipality where the Event is scheduled to be held that has the same effect of infringing upon the civil rights of any group or community.

“Obviously, any wording must be negotiated and agreed upon by the facility,” Foster adds.

Staying informed about municipal laws, policies, and services in the cities where events are being held is imperative. Johnson recommends utilizing The Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Campaign Foundation  annual survey to help understand how healthy cities embody LGBT+ inclusion in their laws, policies, and services.

He added that organizations, communities, and experiences are made of people, and ensuring each person feels comfortable and can bring their whole authentic self into an event must be a top priority.

about the author

Andrea Doyle
Andrea has been covering meetings, events, and trade shows for more than three decades. She is the proud recipient of many journalism awards, the most recent of which was a story featuring Ron Walden, Reed Exhibitions USA’s first Global Executive Sponsor for Race. She received a B.A. from New York University, majoring in English and journalism. She kicks off every summer by participating in the Spring Lake Five Mile run and spends many weekends “down the shore” enjoying Asbury Park’s dynamic music scene.
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