Reed College, a small liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, attracts students who want to speak their mind.
But when Jeremiah True wouldn’t stop talking about his controversial opinions on sexual assault in his required freshman humanities course, his professor banned him from the discussion segment of the class for the remainder of the semester.
The 19-year-old told BuzzFeed News that his professor, Pancho Savery, warned him repeatedly that his views made his classmates uncomfortable before he told him in a March 14 email that he was no longer welcome to participate in the “conference” section of his Humanities 110 lecture-seminar class.
“Please know that this was a difficult decision for me to make and one that I have never made before; nevertheless, in light of the serious stress you have caused your classmates, I feel that I have no other choice,” Savery wrote in the email, obtained by BuzzFeed News.
True, whose Facebook page says he studies “How to Annoy People” at Reed, takes pride in challenging his classmates’ opinions.
“I know many people aren’t comfortable with taking the stances I do, but I’m not a sheep,” he said.
True said he sparred with classmates over discussion topics related to ancient Greece and Rome, such as the “patriarchal” belief that logic is more important than emotion and his analysis of Lucretia’s rape. But it was his questioning of the widely shared and often debated statistic that 1 in 5 women in college are sexually assaulted — it doesn’t serve “actual rape victims” to “overinflate” numbers, he said — and his rejection of the term “rape culture” that led to him being banned, he said.
“I am critical of the idea of a rape culture because it does not exist,” he wrote in a lengthy email to Savery explaining his perspectives that he has also posted online. “We live in a society that hates rape, but also hasn’t optimized the best way to handle rape. Changing the legal definition of rape is a slippery slope. If sexual assault becomes qualified as rape, what happens next? What else can we legally redefine to become rape? Why would we want to inflate the numbers of rape in our society?”
More than 90 colleges are currently under federal investigation for allegedly mishandling sexual violence cases. Sexual assault on campus has become a hot-button issue both in Washington, where the White House launched a task force and senators have introduced bipartisan legislation, and on campuses like Reed, which roughly 1,500 students attend. For activists nationwide, the crackdown on campus sexual assault is long overdue. But other politicians and commentators have accused schools under pressure of suppressing free speech and mistreating accused students.
Reed’s own policies have been the object of scrutiny for years. Despite its small size, Reed’s students reported the most sex crimes of all colleges and universities in the state of Oregon during 2010–2012 and ranked third in the number of reported assaults per 1,000 students in the country in 2012.
“Reed is a private institution that often drops the ball in its responses to sexual misconduct, but this is an excellent example of a professor taking initiative to take care of his students,” senior Rosie Dempsey told BuzzFeed News. “Of course, we are an institution that encourages dissent and active discussion, but there is a difference between stimulating discussion through opposition and making other students feel unsafe.”
Savery, who declined to comment to BuzzFeed News, wrote in his email to True that he had discussed whether to ban True from class with another professor before making his decision.
“There are several survivors of sexual assault in our conference, and you have made them extremely uncomfortable with what they see as not only your undermining incidents of rape, but of also placing too much emphasis on men being unfairly charged with rape,” Savery wrote to True. “The entire conference without exception, men as well as women, feel that your presence makes them uncomfortable enough that they would rather not be there if you are there, and they have said that things you have said in our conference have made them so upset that they have difficulty concentrating in other classes. I, as conference leader, have to do what is best for the well-being of the entire class, and I am therefore banning you from conference for the remainder of the semester.”
Savery said it was too late for True to transfer to another conference but that True could still get credit for the course by completing the last paper and the final exam, and that he was welcome to discuss the remainder of the semester’s readings with Savery in his office.
True told BuzzFeed News that he didn’t feel he had belittled or “incited violence” against any sexual assault survivors who may have been in class.
“I simply questioned the statistics,” he said. “I understand [Savery] has to take care of his students, but I have to take care of my education.”
At Reed, which asks students to govern themselves using an “honor principle” that applies to all aspects of student life, professors are allowed by faculty code to use their own discretion to dismiss a student from class for “serious misconduct” if they consult with the student’s adviser first. (True said Savery was his adviser.) Reed spokesperson Kevin Myers said this was the first “instructor dismissal” he had heard of in his eight years working for the college and that administrators were investigating whether True was removed for appropriate reasons.
“For over 100 years, Reed has been very committed to free speech and diverse viewpoints, and maintaining an environment in which people can live and learn and work and express themselves honorably,” Myers said.
However, in response to a follow-up inquiry from BuzzFeed News on Friday, Myers ultimately defended Professor Savery’s decision to remove True from the class.
“Reed College did not remove the student from class because of the content of his speech, but when a student’s behavior substantially disrupts the academic environment, the college has an obligation to act,” said Kevin Myers. “That is what Professor Savery did in this situation.”
Private colleges aren’t bound by the First Amendment. But Ari Cohn at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said the foundation was interested in investigating True’s case. “Banning a student from a course simply because he expressed views on a topic of classroom discussion that some disagree with or are made uncomfortable by is generally inappropriate,” Cohn said. “A college campus is precisely the place for students to grapple with ideas and develop critical thinking skills, often by challenging prevailing wisdom and subjecting their assumptions to rigorous testing.”
Clara, a freshman in the class True was banned from, told BuzzFeed News that at first, True’s “controversial” points were welcomed and prompted interesting discussions. (Her name has been changed.) Eventually, Clara said, True’s arguments went from productive to “increasingly harmful and offensive.” She said True upset students when he said that it was understandable that the Holocaust happened given that people are not often taught to question systems of oppression, and made other comments about race and class. But the turning point was when he refused to stop discussing his beliefs on rape, even though sexual assault survivors told him outside of class that it made them uncomfortable.
“That’s when he crossed the border from his right to have his own beliefs to harassment,” said Clara. She said that she never felt physically unsafe, but that she is a survivor of sexual assault and True’s comments made it hard for her to concentrate in class as well as other courses.
“In response to being respectfully asked to stop, he discussed [his views] more openly and more aggressively, and just disregarded people’s lived experiences,” she said. “He continued to argue with people who had expressed to him that they felt unsafe and uncomfortable. He said rape culture didn’t exist, but I feel like I live rape culture every day.”
Other students on campus said they were happy that Savery had made a decision that benefited the other students in his class.
“I’m really comforted by the administrative response,” said Kate Hilts, a junior. “It’s really nice to know that my school supports survivors and listens when they say they don’t feel safe. Rape culture is indisputable and [True’s] words and actions are deeply upsetting. They’ve retraumatized and triggered survivors, and that seems antithetical to Reed culture.”
True isn’t planning on quieting down anytime soon. On Wednesday, he emailed a lengthy diatribe to the college’s professors and launched a change.org petition that currently has more than 350 signatures.
“I just want to bring attention to the fact that this happens on colleges,” he said. “Right now, going to college is a terrifying experience if you are male.”
This post has been updated to include comments from a student in True’s Humanities 110 class, as well as an additional comment from a Reed spokesperson in response to further questions made by BuzzFeed News.
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