By Richard Read at OregonLive
Imagine the national headlines that would result if a professor at Reed College, a liberal-arts bastion of free speech and thought, banished a student from class for expressing his views.
Indeed the Portland college did get a raft of negative publicity this week for suppressing free speech and academic debate after Professor Pancho Savery told freshman Jeremiah True that he could no longer attend Humanities 101 class discussions.
True, a student from southern California, said Savery booted him after the 19-year-old disputed a statistic that one in five women in college are sexually assaulted. But a Reed spokesman said True was bounced for being persistently disruptive.
“He wasn’t removed for the content of what was said,” said Kevin Myers, Reed strategic communications director. “This had been going on all year, where he’d bring the conversation to a place that has nothing to do with the content of the class.”
But once buzzfeed.com reported on True’s allegations, news outlets from salon.com to dailycaller.com jumped on the irresistible free-speech angle. By Friday evening more than 2,200 people had signed a change.org petition calling for Jeremiah Josias Luther George True to be readmitted to his class.
What stood out about the incident was not so much a debate over free speech and acceptable campus behavior but the rapidity, in the Internet age, with which a spat between a professor and a student in one small classroom can escalate into a global controversy trending on reddit and fueled by flaming comments, judgmental Tweets and theatrical YouTube pronouncements.
What could once be considered a youthful indiscretion, a teachable moment, an occasion to gain maturity within the confines of a small, forgiving academic community now goes viral on the Web, forever accessible to potential employers and graduate school admissions deans. Adults over, say, 30 can only sigh with relief that their own early attempts to define their identities weren’t chronicled and stored in servers to generate cringes or chuckles decades later.
But as the Internet tsunami gathered momentum this week, True only amplified his positions. He blasted Myers and his professor in interviews with reporters. They wrote the sorts of stories that stick in the public memory, marring the image of a respected institution that a publicist such as Myers has spent years burnishing.
“Kevin Myers is lying,” True said. “He’s just trying to protect Reed’s reputation and endowment.”
Of his English and humanities professor, an ardent supporter of free speech, True said: “Pancho Savery is an enormous hypocrite. He’s also one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. He encouraged me to dig deeper into things and to look critically at what great authors were saying, and how I could interpret that in a way that was meaningful to me.”
Clearly, True was trying to get attention. He got plenty. Savery, in contrast, did not respond to requests for comment.
“A lot of what’s been reported has not been terribly accurate,” Myers said in an understated way. He said Inside Higher Ed had published a balanced story, which Reed linked from its web site.
That publication reported that True declined to be interviewed unless the reporter agreed to use a racial epithet as the first word of her story. The reporter declined. The interview didn’t happen.
“To be honest, I’m concerned for this student,” Myers said. “His actions have been pretty erratic.”
True imposed a different condition for an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive.com. He wrote in a Facebook message that, “I will not speak to you if you do not permit me to use vulgar language.”
But during the phone interview Friday, True was polite. He didn’t use vulgarities.
True came across as a calm and reasonable person, other than insulting Savery and Myers and using a racial epithet offensive to African Americans and others. True is biracial: African American and Caucasian.
“I truly did come to Reed to become an academic, but my academic inquiry and thought tend to annoy people,” True said. “Now I’m refusing to attend any of my classes. I want to draw attention to the fact that similar shady things happen at colleges all the time that try to avoid doing the right thing to avoid controversy.”
As to Myers’ contention that his behavior was erratic, True said, “A lot of people on the Internet are really concerned that I’m in some way going to hurt myself or injure myself. I am in no danger of hurting myself or anyone else. I am perfectly rational, reasonable and sane.”
Last week, according to Inside Higher Ed, Savery held a class that True did not attend. More than one student in the class had told Savery that they’d been sexually assaulted, the publication reported, and both male and female students complained about True’s statements and behavior in class.
Savery wrote emails to True, who posted the correspondence online. In one message, Savery wrote to True about his effect on classmates.
“You have made them extremely uncomfortable with what they see as not only your undermining incidents of rape,” Savery wrote, “but of also placing too much emphasis on men being unfairly charged with rape.”
The professor told True that he had to do what was best for the class. He banned True from a break-out discussion section of the class, not from lectures, and offered to meet with him individually for the rest of the semester.
“Please know that this was a difficult decision for me to make and one that I have never made before,” Savery wrote. “Nevertheless, in light of the serious stress you have caused your classmates, I feel that I have no other choice.”
Savery wrote that he had discussed True’s behavior with another professor before deciding to ban him.
“The entire conference without exception, men as well as women, feels that your presence makes them uncomfortable enough that they would rather not be there if you are there,” Savery wrote, “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.”
Reed students interviewed by Buzzfeed and The Reed College Quest, the student newspaper, defended Savery’s decision to remove True. According to the newspaper, True upset classmates by saying that lower-class people didn’t have the ability to create art, and by claiming that those responsible for the Holocaust shouldn’t be blamed … because they didn’t know any better.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is investigating True’s case to determine whether his removal violates free-speech rights. Myers also told Buzzfeed that the college was investigating whether True was removed for appropriate reasons.
True takes pride in being provocative and politically incorrect. He declares on his Facebook page that he studied “How to Annoy People” at Reed. On Tuesday, he emailed a lengthy diatribe to faculty members defending his views on rape, his rights to free speech and his efforts to return to class.
During the interview Friday, True said he continues to see his exclusion from class as a violation of free speech.
“I simply pointed out the facts, and did so politely,” True said. “I said that women aren’t being raped as often as we’re told. And for this, I was kicked out of class.”
Schools: Reed College