Public figures who make their controversial opinions known to the world

After all these somber and/or infuriating items, a funny one. Justin Vacula on Facebook.

A lengthy post I authored months ago concerning what certain Freethought Bloggers are calling ‘stalking’ and ‘cyberstalking’ is below. This is especially relevant considering Ophelia Benson’s recent post “It’s all trolling, when you come right down to it” in which she claims that the “pro-misogyny crowd” stalks bloggers “day in and day out.”

TL;DR – criticism, even when it is excessive, isn’t stalking or cyberstalking. Public figures who make their controversial opinions known to the world will get responses. Reductio ad absurdum: Major cable news networks must be stalkers for their coverage of Obama and Romney.

Well thank you! That is very flattering. I’m as important as Obama. Who knew?!

But let’s be real. I’m not a “public figure.” That phrase doesn’t mean people like me. It means truly public; famous. I’m not famous by any stretch of the imagination.

And then, saying that people “will get responses” doesn’t mean that all responses are fine, or that there is no reason to say some responses are more reasonable or acceptable than others. It’s just a factual statement, so obvious that it’s almost empty. It amounts to “if you say something, you might get replies.” It says nothing about whether some kinds of reply are intrusive or aggressive or stalker-like.

What about this claim that excessive criticism isn’t cyberstalking? I think it’s dead wrong. I think highly excessive – indeed, obsessive – criticism is indeed cyberstalking. It’s cyber because it’s not literally someone following you down the street, so it is less scary than literal stalking. It’s mostly a lot less scary than that. But it is stalkerish in being obsessive out of all proportion to anything actually done or said or otherwise perpetrated. Having people posting and tweeting about you every day, repeating the same meagre list of offenses over and over again, monitoring every word you say – yes, that is stalkerish.

Another thing. What we get isn’t “coverage.” It isn’t journalism, it isn’t reporting, it isn’t news. It’s a campaign of vilification. That’s all it’s about; that’s its only purpose. It never stops. I posted a lot about Chris Mooney during the summer of 2009 – but that was because he kept writing articles for major media outlets, attacking “new” atheists. I posted about those articles. He stopped writing them, and I stopped writing about them and about him. I didn’t latch onto him like a lamprey and never let go.

So, no. None of what he said is right. I’m not talking about disagreement and discussion. I’m talking about non-stop monitoring and lying and smearing. I’m not a public figure, much less Obama or Romney, so no, the same rules don’t apply.


  1. Eshto says

    Great, now apply this reasoning to Stephanie Zvan’s ridiculous and over-the-top petition against Justin Vacula. And all the other public smears that have graced the pages of FTB and Skepchick.

  2. says

    Does it make it any easier that they (Well a large proportion of them anyway) have a public forum where you can go and see what the latest memes and ‘criticisms’ they are cooking up are? Taking the meatspace stalker analogy you can look right into the stalkers front room and hear what the latest obsession is all about. I’d imagine it takes away some of the fear of a stalker as you usually have no idea what their motivations or competence is and you assume they are watching and planning a lot more than they probably are. Your stalkers are mostly pretty ridiculous in their ‘criticisms’ (imo) and the campaigns consisting of daft photoshopped pics etc make for childish memes that no one you probably care about will be persuaded by.

    Probably not that helpful but like having a meatspace stalker was in some ways seen as a complement the same could be said of them. One thing I’ve never understood is why if you are so irrelevant and full of it do they need to ‘baboon watch’ and ridicule anything you say?

  3. Sassafras says

    Ok, by his reasoning, Justin Vacula made his opinions known to the world, and is thus a public figure by his own definition, and thus nothing said about him is bullying, and you can all drop the FTBullies nonsense.

  4. says

    @Eshto, yeah I saw Ophelia and her fans sending all those tweets to Justin saying what a vacuous shitbag he is. They are still doing it, must be getting him down. That photoshopped pic of him as Hitler ushering in a new dawn for the SCA was also rather underhand. I don’t know why they keep commenting on his appearance it really isn’t relevant. Why can FtBs not get over it and leave him alone! [So no, not the same, at all]

  5. Rodney Nelson says

    criticism, even when it is excessive, isn’t stalking or cyberstalking.

    Possibly true. Writing “Rebecca Twatson” or “she should be kicked in the cunt” isn’t criticism. Especially when these sentiments are repeated day after day for over a year.

  6. says

    Actually, Eshto, why don’t you apply Ophelia’s reasoning to that petition? Don’t just note that Ophelia has said she isn’t Obama. Take her argument apart into its component pieces, pick out the points on which it rests, find the analogous parts of my behavior (or the lack of them), and make an argument instead of just a drive-by sneer.

    Think you can do that?

  7. Forbidden Snowflake says

    LOL, Eshto. That would have been more convincing if Vacula hadn’t called himself a leader of the atheist movement.

  8. bcmystery says

    Vacula just comes off, as so many of ilk, as a precocious child. He has a vocabulary and can construct sentences and paragraphs, but his “arguments” come across as infantile butthurt and tantrums.

  9. says

    If a normal person was subjected to what CNN etc. are doing to Obamney, YES the “reporters” could easily be charged with stalking or at least sued for harassment.

    I can’t believe that has to be pointed out.

    I know we try to steer clear of certain kinds of insults, but seriously, I really feel that there’s something busted about Justin’s thinker.

  10. boopsey says


    While you may minimize your celebrity, I think you are a public figure. You have certainly aired controversial opinions publicly and spoken of them at conferences. In fact, I think you expect and deal with regular pushback regarding your ideas, as is appropriate for anyone putting ideas out into the public sphere.

    It’s the personal vindictive pushback that isn’t appropriate and that is hard to deal with. I could not handle what you and other women posting here have had to deal with. I think that in a better world, you wouldn’t have to.

    @ Rodney Nelson – Did Mr. Vacula actually write those things? Repeatedly for over a year? I think what Ophelia’s been subjected to is ridiculous, but I don’t think that Vacula did all that. When I read over what he said, he seemed more a member of the chorus than an instigator to me.

    It’s been interesting reading about this issue. It does seem a bit like what’s been happening to Mr. Vacula is analogous to what has been happening to women posting in this area for quite some time. Now, it’s different in some key ways; I’m not trying to equate the motivation for the actions. I’m just noting the similarity of the tactics. I also want to note how very effective those tactics are:

    Mr. Vacula has stepped down from his position of leadership.

    People like myself are discouraged from posting controversial opinions. I find the personal hostility to be beyond what I can tolerate. So I mainly lurk.

    This was just some food for thought in return for same.

  11. says

    Beth –

    Well I agree that I’m a (very minor) public intellectual of sorts. But a public figure is more than that; it implies real fame.

    I also agree that I expect pushback, but, as you say, not personal vindictive campaigns.

    I think Vacula is just recycling a popular (and very wrongheaded) claim that anybody who utters a peep aloud should expect and put up with torrents of abuse. It’s just ridiculous.

  12. Aratina Cage says

    *applause*, oolon. Well played, sir. Expecting them to self reflect isn’t going to change anything, which is why we need those several atheist men who are protecting the slimepitters to stop doing so and tell them in no uncertain terms to stop. I don’t know what else will shake them enough to make them look at what they are doing to others.

  13. says

    A limited purpose public figure, in U.S. defamation law, need not “occupy positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes” but may simply have “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” (Gertz v. Welch, 418 U.S. 323, at page 345)

    Although there isn’t a lot of case law on point (regarding bloggers in particular) Justin and Ophelia would probably both fit the bill respecting specific and limited issues on which they have weighed in.

  14. says

    Oh ffs. The usual red herring. I’m not talking about the law, and Vacula didn’t mention the law either. This is oughts and shoulds territory, not call the cops territory.

  15. says

    No, it wasn’t, you creep. (You are one of them – just in case any readers aren’t aware of that.) This post was about what I quoted. I didn’t read the old post he linked at the bottom.

  16. says

    For fuck’s sake. Defamation law has nothing to do with stalking. Don’t point to that article as though Vacula’s conflation of the two was in any way reasonable.

  17. Emily Isalwaysright says

    Actually, I think a LOT of what public figures and celebrities get subjected to these days IS stalking.

    Also, O, within a certain context you could be considered as equivalent to what is meant by famous. Fame is contextual, eg. someone can be nationally famous but not world famous.

    Fwiw, I’m glad you’re “famous”. I think you’re finally getting the attention you deserve (not the stalkery stuff, obviously).

  18. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    Am I the only one that thinks it’s funny that his ‘TL:DR’ was as long as first paragraph?

  19. chrislawson says

    In Australia recently, arch-conservative radio host Alan Jones made a comment at the expense of the Prime Minister. (Her father had died unexpectedly just 2 weeks earlier and Jones said, “The old man recently died a few weeks ago of shame. To think that he had a daughter who told lies every time she stood for parliament.”) He said this as guest speaker for a private function.

    Using her father’s recent death to attack Gillard while she was still grieving was considered sufficiently unacceptable that Jones has been haemorrhaging sponsors ever since.

    So, yeah, the argument that any and all criticism of public figures is acceptable turns out not to meet contemporary Australian community standards*, even when the public figure is the incumbent Prime Minister.

    *which are pretty laissez-faire

  20. Bruce Gorton says

    Ophelia – you are pretty well known actually. A surprising number of people I know IRL know and appreciate your work.

    Anyway, wouldn’t harassment fit better? I mean I think of stalking I think more of hunting behaviour, and what you are describing isn’t hunting as laying mental siege.

  21. Bruce Gorton says

    Sorry – head cold.

    I mean I think of stalking I think more of hunting behaviour, and what you are describing isn’t hunting as laying mental siege.

    Should read

    I mean when I think of stalking I think more of hunting behaviour, and what you are describing isn’t hunting so much as laying mental siege.

  22. John Phillips, FCD says

    Bruce Gorton, I know you’re not talking legally, but in the UK, stalking and harassment are considered the same and are covered by the same law. It only requires two separate actions to make it actionable. Cyberstalking, a separate law, only requires one such action to trigger possible prosecution. Also, intent is not considered, only a reasonable person test need be applied.

  23. eric says


    A limited purpose public figure, in U.S. defamation law…

    Is your point that Ophelia would lose if she tried to sue the Vacula for defamation? Sure, okay. She’s not actually doing that, you know.

  24. No Light says

    Ah yes, “public figure”, in this case meaning “Woman who speaks”.

    Nice to see the usual creeps turning up to derail and talk shite.

    Nice, like a pilonidal sinus is nice.

  25. Bruce Gorton says

    Stephanie Zvan

    Thanks for the added details. I think maybe some of these guys need to get jobs in the mining sector, because they keep surprising me with how low they can go.

    John Phillips, FCD

    I did not know that. Thanks hey!


  1. […] Justin Vacula wants us to pay attention to his new blog post. I skimmed it and don’t think I want to pay any more attention to it than that, but if you want to, knock yourselves out. (It seems to boil down to “if you’re not willing to be called a fucking cunt then don’t say anything that might prompt someone to call you a fucking cunt.” I think that’s a very stupid and retrograde approach.) Share this:FacebookTwitterRedditMorePress ThisStumbleUponDiggEmailPrint Posted in Notes and Comment Blog « The Searchers You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. […]

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