ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The Personal Is the Political—and then Some

August 1, 2005 by ACTA

Nathaniel Nelson, a political science major at the University of Rhode Island, describes his disturbing experience in a course called "Political Philosophy: Plato to Machiavelli." Required for the major, the course is billed as covering "major political philosophies from Plato to Machiavelli and their influence on such key concepts as justice, equality, and political obligation," but what Nelson found was that the course was more an education in professorial foibles than in political philosophy. According to Nelson, the very first words the professor addressed to the class were, "My name is Michael Vocino and I like dick." Weston goes on to detail how frequently--and how disruptively, Vocino injected his sexuality and his politics into the classroom, painting a scenario in which, over the course of the semester, Vocino's unsolicted off-topic commentary frequently veered into the zone of harassment.

On the first day of class, for example, Vocino reportedly asked Nelson point-blank if he is "queer." On other occasions, he used class time to compliment Nelson's legs, told Nelson he thought he was "hot" and asked him if that made him uncomfortable. According to Nelson, Vocino encouraged him and other male class members to "make out" with one another and then report on what it was like; he also made a point of inquiring which of his students were sexually active, and of challenging those who were not to become so. Nelson argues that Vocino's provocative behavior was intended to shock his conservative students and even to urge them to abandon their beliefs for more radical and, by his lights, more acceptable ones.

One day, for example, Vocino asked Nelson and another conservative student to stand in front of the class and explain why they are Republicans; at other times, Nelson was commanded to explain what "your Bible" has to say about hot-button issues like abortion, homosexuality, and war. Positioned as a politically and socially conservative spokesperson by a professor who treated conservative beliefs as beneath contempt--Vocino once asked Nelson to explain to the class why Christians "hate fags"--Nelson writes that over time he "began to feel hated within the classroom." Nelson's list of Vocino's infractions goes on, culminating in an account of how, in response to a general invitation to any interested class members to attend a Thanksgiving service with him, Vocino agreed to go on condition that Nelson return the favor by visiting a gay bar with him. Eventually, Nelson complained to the chair of the political science department, who responded appropriately to his concerns. Vocino was reprimanded and suspended from teaching, and Nelson was given the option of filing a formal complaint against Vocino for discriminating against him. Weston did not file the complaint, believing that the matter had gone far enough; he was advised to report Vocino if he attempted to make contact with him.

Since then, things have gone the way they tend to do in the harshly politicized climate of contemporary academe. Vocino has not been in touch with Weston, but he has attacked him in print, responding to a column Weston wrote for the student paper (mostly about Terry Schiavo's "right to life," but making some pointed statements about how America's "support" for homosexuality--which he glosses as "the leading cause of AIDS"-- is destroying the "sacred institution" of marriage). Vocino responded by describing him as the "face of hate," claiming that views such as those expressed by Weston "cause murder, beatings, humiliation and more for LGBT community members."

This time Nelson did file a complaint against Vocino, but got nowhere, and rightly so--there is a difference between the kind of harassing behavior Vocino engaged in as Nelson's teacher and the virulent but fully protected expression he engages in well beyond the classroom as a critic of Nelson's ideas. The difference appears to be lost on Nelson, however, who ends his column on a note of disappointment that nothing could be done to punish Vocino for criticizing his views, especially since the "backlash" he experienced after writing his column was severe.

Nelson seems unclear about the difference between harassment, which, if his report of Vocino's classroom behavior toward him is accurate, he absolutely experienced, and vociferous criticism that is protected by the First Amendment. Nelson has the right not to be treated as a sexual object or an ideological pariah by his professors, but he does not have the right not to be criticized by those he offends--just as they do not have the right not to be criticized, and thus offended, by him.

Both Nelson's experience and his recounting of it are symptomatic of some of the most basic confusions animating campus life today. In his uncertainty about what kinds of speech are and are not protected, Nelson exemplifies a campus culture where words and deeds are not carefully distinguished from one another (so that words are often understood as "weapons" that "wound"), and where words that genuinely harm (by harassing pointedly, repeatedly, consistently over time; by making tolerance of that harassment a condition of keeping a job, or avoiding a bad grade) are frequently equated with words that merely offend. According to FIRE's Spotlight, a tool for tracking speech codes and individual rights violations on campuses across the nation, the University of Rhode Island has speech codes on the books that confuse precisely these matters, and in that sense, Nelson's own confusion makes perfect sense.


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