A Code of Conduct Won’t Prevent Bad Actors, No Matter How Thorough

A code of conduct (CoC), no matter how lengthy and well-defined, won’t save or protect you from the worst amongst us.

Weeks after announcing he’d be stepping away from the Linux community to focus on how he interacted with people, Linus Torvalds is back. In a letter to the Linux community, interim kernel maintainer Greg Kroah-Hartman announced he would be “handing the kernel tree” back to Torvalds as the community adopts and tweaks a formal code of conduct.

The Linux community code of conduct is based on the Contributor Covenant CoC for open-source projects. Linux’s application of its CoC pertains specifically to those representing the project via official means, which means “using an official project e-mail address, posting via an official social media account, or acting as an appointed representative at an online or offline event.”

We’re not sure if a month away and a code of conduct is really enough to tame the instincts of Linus Torvalds, who famously has (or had) a ‘code of conflict’ that encourages harsh public discourse. Though apparently voluntary (it’s unclear if any behind-the-scenes machinations caused Torvalds to step away), his sabbatical was surprisingly short-lived.

At the apparent behest of “clients,” the open community of SQLite also has a fresh code of conduct. It recently updated the CoC for maintainers and participating community members. Like any good code of conduct, it’s one that hopes to keep those closest to the core project honest.

But SQLite’s CoC, which it calls ‘The Rule,’ is dogmatic – no, really. From SQLite:

Having been encouraged by clients to adopt a written code of conduct, the SQLite developers elected to govern their interactions with each other, with their clients, and with the larger SQLite user community in accordance with the “instruments of good works” from chapter 4 of The Rule of St. Benedict. This code of conduct has proven its mettle in thousands of diverse communities for over 1,500 years, and has served as a baseline for many civil law codes since the time of Charlemagne.

(Side note: after reading through this CoC, we thought maybe SQLite was hacked, but that seems impossible. We can safely assume this CoC was implemented by the maintainers of SQLite.)

If the SQLite maintainers aren’t having a laugh at their “clients,” they’re a pious bunch. The SQLite code of conduct has rules like “prefer nothing more than the love of Christ,” and “deny oneself in order to follow Christ.”

We’re especially fond of “put your hope in God,” as it’s something even the non-religious amongst us do every time we compile code.

SQLite applies its 72-part dictum to “SQLite developers,” though as its most recent update to this CoC notes: “Everyone is free to use the SQLite source code, object code, and/or documentation regardless of their opinion of and adherence to this rule.”

It’s possible the SQLite maintainers are simply having a laugh at the concept of a code of conduct, and perhaps for good reason. CoCs are not easy to enforce legally, which may be why GNU’s version is called a ‘Kind Communications Guideline‘ rather than a proper code of conduct. LegalVision sums it up nicely, pointing out: “Businesses more commonly use their Code [of Conduct] as a self-regulatory tool rather than a legal instrument.” To that, a Benedictine litany and the carefully considered open source maintainers ‘be-nice’ guide are on the same footing.

A code of conduct, no matter how clever or lengthy, is not always directly enforceable for those in legally binding situations like employment – but it happens. An example of it being cited as means for losing a job came this year when Texas Instruments’ then-CEO Brian Crutcher resigned after the board found he’d committed “violations of the company’s code of conduct.”

Texas Instruments didn’t elaborate on what Crutcher had done, but a quick poke through the company’s code of conduct shows several topics that can be enforceable beyond the guidance a CoC provides, like compliance with the law and reporting or providing a safe workplace. To this, it’s entirely possible Crutcher’s ‘code of conduct violation’ was simply the easiest way to not publicly discuss the deeper reason(s) he was stepping away.

Codes of conduct are important. They provide necessary guidelines for those who may otherwise not consider how their actions affect others, and provide equal footing for all groups within the larger scope of a project or event. If nothing more, it helps people think twice about saying or doing something insensitive or just plain wrong, and most CoCs have clauses that permit them to remove you from an event or group where your participation is voluntary should you overstep your bounds. But as we see, even when they’re in place, people will still try to skirt the rules and do what’s wrong.