Update: Justin Vacula has resigned his position as co-chair. The petition to remove him is no longer necessary, and I congratulate him on making the right move for the Secular Coalition.
By now you’ve heard that Justin Vacula has been named one of the co-chairs of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Secular Coalition for America. You may be among the people who are upset about this appointment. If you are, a petition has been started that will hopefully represent your concerns.
We urge the Secular Coalition of America to reverse the appointment of Justin Vacula as co-chair of the executive council of the Pennsylvania chapter. We believe that Vacula is unfit for this leadership position for the following reasons.
1. He has engaged in extreme behavior, including harassment, in opposing feminists within the secular movement that does not befit a leader and does not promote broad participation in the movement.
2. He has, at the same time, minimized harassment as a problem within the movement and broader community.
3. He has spoken publicly and incorrectly on legal matters in a way that would be counterproductive in a lobbyist.
4. He has used his current leadership position as a tool for his personal causes, including personal grievances.
Much of this behavior has happened in venues the SCA may not be aware of. However, it will still impact the effectiveness and credibility of SCA as an organization. For that reason, all of these issues are discussed in further detail below.
Leaders of state chapters are intended to represent their local secular communities to the media. We believe it is inappropriate for such a representative to have unapologetically published on the site A Voice for Men, which describes itself: “AVfM regards feminists, manginas, white knights and other agents of misandry as a social malignancy. We do not consider them well intentioned or honest agents for their purported goals and extend to them no more courtesy or consideration than we would clansmen, skinheads, neo Nazis or other purveyors of hate.” We further consider it inappropriate for Vacula to have used this site, monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, as a platform for attacking a fellow, feminist secularist.
Leaders of state chapters are also intended to lobby their state governments. We believe it is inappropriate for such a lobbyist to rely his own naïve understanding of the law when speaking publicly, as Vacula has done several times. He did so when claimed that public figures could not be cyberstalked. He did so when he claimed Fair Use of copyrighted material without understanding the limitations of Fair Use, when he claimed DMCA notices were bullying, and when he filed a DMCA counternotice on a photograph he did not own. This kind of active ignorance may work on a blog, but in the halls of legislature, we believe it is a recipe for disaster.
Most of all, leaders of state chapters are intended to be leaders. This gives them power and, thus, responsibilities beyond the ordinary. Vacula has already been one of the leaders of the NEPA Freethought Society, and his actions in that role give us additional cause for concern. We believe these are concerns the SCA should take seriously as well.
A leader should use the resources of the group for the good of the group, not to achieve personal goals. Vacula did not meet those standards when he used the NEPA Freethought Society podcast to criticize Ophelia Benson for dropping out of the speaker line-up at TAM after receiving threatening emails. Additionally, he did not meet what I hope are that organization’s and the SCA’s standards for honesty in leaders when in that podcast, he read out only parts of the emails that are nonthreatening.
Additionally, leaders, particularly leaders of popular movements, are responsible for providing a welcoming atmosphere to those who would contribute to their causes. In this respect, Vacula has failed most spectacularly.
No one actively involved in movement atheism in the U.S. can fail to be aware that certain women in the movement have been harassed, some to the point of abandoning their activism, for more than a year. Vacula has dismissed this harassment as “trolls making silly comments on the internet”, saying, “Here’s the deal. You produce a real threat and I’ll sound the claxons.”
Not only has Vacula dismissed the harassment as unimportant, he has participated in it himself. He has participated very actively in the #FTBullies and #atheismplus campaigns, where anti-harassment and inclusion efforts are characterized as censorship, totalitarianism, dogmatism, group-think, and bullying (among the more polite terms). He has written blog posts on these topics that he promoted using those campaigns.
He has been a regular commenter at what is now known as The Slyme Pit, a group dedicated to hatred of Rebecca Watson and anyone who is or is perceived to ally with her on matters of “radical” feminism. This group has produced threats requiring the attention of organizers of two different conferences and has been home to the cyberstalking Vacula defended as perfectly fine for “public figures”. Vacula has participated in this group both before and after it was removed from National Geographic’s ScienceBlogs website for violating nearly every provision of the site’s code of conduct.
Nor has Vacula’s association with harassment been passive. He has continued to contact people on Twitter after being told to stop, requiring that he be blocked. In one particularly egregious example of harassment, he posted the address of Surly Amy Roth to The Slyme Pit. He provided her information to a group that had already been posting obsessively about her.
In another, he reacted to the news that the #atheismplus campaign had triggered the chronic depression of Jennifer McCreight, causing her to stop her public activism. Jen is a blogger, speaker, and vice chair of the Secular Student Alliance board. Rather than noting that harassment that leads to results like this is bad for the movement he is trying to lead, he tweeted, “So, Jen’s allegedly finished blogging…and this time it’s not her boyfriend who kicked her off the internet.” He did so using the #atheismplus tag, copying his contempt to the group that had been harassing McCreight.
Behavior like this is leadership behavior. It condones and encourages. In Vacula’s case, however, what it is condoning and encouraging is harassment of those who are valuable members of the movement that the SCA has appointed Vacula to aid. This is not how a movement grows. This is not how it encourages broad participation.
For all the reasons listed above, we believe that Justin Vacula is singularly unqualified for the leadership position the SCA has seen fit to give him. We urge the SCA to reconsider their decision and remove him as soon as possible.
Sign the petition here.