Magazine assignment 'a mistake,' officer says

October 01, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer Staff Writer John Rivera contributed to this report.

The manager of the U.S. Naval Academy's bookstore says he just wanted to check whether a magazine was offensive to women. But his attempt to be politically correct backfired and embarrassed a young female employee.

Seventeen-year-old Nicole Stuller says she felt humiliated when the Navy officer asked her to go through an article in the October issue of Vanity Fair and "highlight all the dirty parts." She left work shaken and wrote a letter to her superior complaining about the request, which she considers harassment.

"I was upset," Ms. Stuller said yesterday. "I just felt really dirty after reading all that foul language. There were some very explicit paragraphs, and it made me very uncomfortable."

Lt. Cmdr. Stephen D. Taylor says he was looking for a second opinion on whether to remove the issue of Vanity Fair, which contains semi-nude photographs of Madonna and an interview about her steamy book, "Sex."

The 38-year-old officer in charge of the bookstore decided to pull the magazine after another female employee complained about it, but feared he could be accused of censorship.

Commander Taylor said he's become more sensitive to material that could be considered offensive to women in the wake of the Tailhook scandal. He pointed out several items in the bookstore that he's considered removing, including a rap album with a cover that features women in leather bikini tops.

The bookstore does not carry Playboy, Playgirl or other sex-oriented magazines.

"We have a unique concern here," Commander Taylor said. "On the one hand, we have to ensure that inappropriate material is not available. On the other hand, we don't want to get into book-burning. It would be just as controversial if I start pulling everything from the shelves I think is inappropriate."

Commander Taylor now considers the request he made Sept. 16 "a mistake" and has apologized to Ms. Stuller. "I don't think I'd make that same decision again," he said.

The daughter of a Navy captain who is a freshman studying psychology at Anne Arundel Community College, Ms. Stuller said she found the magazine "very offensive" and the assignment a form of verbal harassment.

She tried to hide the magazine under her sleeve, but several midshipmen and co-workers teased her, increasing her embarrassment. Fearing she would lose her job as a cashier, she complied for several minutes and highlighted racy passages in the article before returning the magazine.

A female manager at the bookstore encouraged her to tell Robert Speaks, supervisor of civilian employees at the Naval Academy, about the incident. Ms. Stuller says she also was encouraged to speak out by participating in a seminar designed to change attitudes that led to several widely publicized incidents of sexual harassment.

Commander Taylor's assignment did not constitute sexual harassment under Navy guidelines, said Cmdr. Mike John, an academy spokesman. While agreeing the bookstore manager exhibited "poor judgment," Commander John pointed out that Ms. Stuller did not mention the words "sexual harassment" in her letter and did not file an official complaint.

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