On July 22, 2021, the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors unanimously adopted the following statement:
Recently there has been some discussion in the NFB community regarding whether certain aspects of the NFB Code of Conduct and actions taken related to the Code violate provisions of the NFB Constitution. In short, the board believes that it and the President have been acting fully within the authority granted them by the NFB Constitution. We also believe our actions have been in the best interest of the organization and increasingly more supportive of survivors of misconduct.
With respect to the Constitution, the two relevant provisions to this statement are Article V, Section B, and Article III, Section E.
Article V, Section B, says in part: “The function of the board of directors as the governing body of the Federation between Conventions is to make policies when necessary and not in conflict with the policies adopted by the Convention.”
Article III, Section E says in part: “Any member, local chapter, state affiliate, or division of this organization may be suspended, expelled, or otherwise disciplined for misconduct or for activity unbecoming to a member or affiliate of this organization by a two-thirds vote of the board of directors or by a simple majority of the states present and voting at a National Convention.
With respect to the Code, the board first adopted it on January 26, 2018, and the Code has been amended three times since then, at board meetings occurring on December 1, 2018; April 4, 2019; and December 4 and 5, 2020. On each occasion, the board has unanimously voted first to adopt the Code and then the subsequent amendments to it. Additionally, since the Code’s original adoption, there have been four national conventions. Pursuant to Article V, Section A, the convention is the supreme authority of the Federation and can reverse any policy or action of the board. Notably, the convention has not taken any action to reverse or alter the board’s actions with respect to the Code.
Very recently some have argued that President Riccobono does not have the constitutional power to suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline members in the Federation and that such power is only reserved for the board and/or the Convention. The board believes that it and President Riccobono have acted within their Constitutional authority by adopting the Code of Conduct and its related processes to carry out their authority to suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline members. The board has expressly not relinquished its right to suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline members because it retains the right to review and potentially reverse any actions taken by the Office of the President under the Code. It must be noted that the President has never unilaterally issued any ruling under the Code since its inception.
A concern has also been raised regarding the perception that the Federation’s board has given decision-making authority to an external investigator. All members should feel confident in the fact that the Federation has always and will continue to direct its own efforts. While our organization is a deep source of authentic expertise related to blind people, we often partner with those with expertise in other areas in order to best inform our work. In January 2021, the board committed to engaging an external investigator to conduct independent investigations into reports of sexual harassment and abuse filed under the NFB Code of Conduct. Specifically, the external investigator has been charged with determining whether the conduct reported occurred and whether that conduct constitutes a violation of the Federation’s Code. Additionally, we have asked the external investigator to provide recommendations regarding sanctions that should be issued under the Code based on the investigator’s factual findings in any given matter. The report and recommendations are reviewed by two members of the board who make recommendations to the President (or other officer if there is the potential of a conflict of interest for the President) before a final ruling is issued. The ruling can be appealed to a three-member panel of the board. At every step, we take care to review for conflicts and protect the sensitivity of information. This interim process has worked successfully since that time and is consistent with the organization’s commitment to be survivor centered, trauma informed, and fair and equitable. If a member demanded their appeal be considered by the entire board, it will in fact be considered by the whole board. Regardless, this board is not prepared to subject survivors to unnecessary steps that may further the harm already experienced. Thus, the board retains the right to organize the appeals process in ways that minimize further harm and protect confidentiality. It must be stressed that this board reserves the right to review and revise any of these procedures at any time as we receive advice from our experts such as RAINN, the Special Committee, and our survivor-led taskforce.
The board acknowledges that the Federation’s Constitution does not specifically contemplate a written Code of Conduct. However, the board’s broad authority as the governing body of the Federation between Conventions gives it the power to adopt policies such as the Code of Conduct. Regardless, the board intends to form a committee to study whether the Constitution should be amended to address specifically the Code of Conduct or to consider other amendments that better reflect how the Federation should govern itself to meet current needs and present day realities. The board has not taken this step yet because we are still in the process of gathering advice from our internal and external experts. Those who wish to comment on this topic and provide input to the board should, by September 1, 2021, send an email to [email protected] or leave a message at 410-659-9314, extension 2263.