I have a friend, in the Chicago area, who calls me up two or three times a year to ask me to give a talk at a User Group, or a conference he’s involved with, or something like that. If my schedule is free I always say yes. I don’t charge anything because I enjoy supporting the Chicago software community, and it’s never a bad thing to get my face out in front of new people. I am a consultant, after all, and giving pro-bono talks is one of the ways I promote myself.
Anyway, he wrote to me last October (That’s right, a full year ago!) and asked me to give a presentation at a Chicago conference this September 21st. I agreed, and he thanked me, and that was that. Then, in June, he wrote to tell me that the conference was going to be virtual due to Covid. I acknowledged and, once again, that was that.
Last Wednesday, September 9th, twelve days before the conference, he called me on the phone and said:
“This is going to be the most uncomfortable phone call I have ever made.”
He went on to say that the “Code of Conduct” people at the conference were concerened about some of my political opinions, and that some of the speakers of the conference refused to speak if I was going to speak.
Like I said, this guy is a friend of mine, and I don’t want to get him into any trouble, so I decided not to raise a fuss about it, and I promised him I would not mention his name or the name of the conference on line. He responded by telling me:
I’m scared to death of these people.
Over the last few days I’ve been mulling this situation over in my mind, and I’ve come to a few interesting conclusions.
- The conference organizers are in breach of contract.
OK, we didn’t have a formal written contract, but we had emails. And we also had the fact that, for the better part of a year, the conference website had my picture on it, and advertised me as a speaker. I conclude that the conference organizers derived substantial benefit from those pictures and from promising my virtual presence to their audience. I, on the other hand, was denied the benefit of actually speaking to that audience. Therefore, I am the damaged party.
Could I sue them? Certainly, though I’d have a difficult time quantifying the damages. Had we agreed on a speaking fee, I could at least claim that fee as damages. Next time I do one of these pro-bono events I’ll have the organizers agree to paying a hefty cancellation fee.
- The speakers who refused to speak if I spoke are guilty of tortious interference.
Those speakers would not have been harmed by speaking in a virtual conference that I also spoke in. Their intent was to damage me by forcing the conference organizers to breach their contract with me. That is the definition of tortious interference.
Could I sue them? Certainly. I won’t, for the same reason that I’m not going to sue the conference organizers. And, frankly, suing people for such small potatoes just isn’t worth the trouble. But, like I said, next time I do a pro-bono talk I’ll have the conference organizers agree to the value that I’m deriving in return for using my name and likeness on their website. Then I can sue them, and any tortious interferers, for that sum and punitive damages too.
Do I know who those tortiously interfering speakers are? I’ve got a pretty good idea. Myfear of course is that I do not wish to harm my friend. Nor do I wish to harm the conference organizers, nor the Chicago Software community. It seems to me that they are all victims of those revolting speakers.
So, this time, I’ll let the legal options rest. Instead, I’m offering a virtual free talk at 10:00 AM CDT, on September 21st, the first day of the conference. Those who wanted to hear me speak, still can.
The last point I’d like to make is this:
Disinviting someone from a virtual conference who can draw a potentially large audience away from that virtual conference is not a particularly intelligent tactic.