With Details of Classroom Ban at Reed Unclear, Student Speech Will Be Chilled

March 20, 2015

Jeremiah True, a student at Reed College in Portland, has reported that he was banned from his Humanities 110 classroom by Professor Pancho Savery because of statements he made about rape culture that made others in the class uncomfortable. In particular, True said he challenged the controversial statistic that one in five college women are victims of attempted or completed sexual assault. Accounts of True’s classroom expression and behavior differ among those speaking to the press. But to FIRE’s knowledge, no one has challenged the legitimacy of an email that Savery allegedly sent to True, excerpts of which True has published. Without clarification from Reed, FIRE believes this email could substantially chill student expression on campus.

BuzzFeed reported yesterday that Savery “warned [True] 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 the class. (Emphasis added.) That email read, in part:

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. They, and others, do not feel comfortable being in the same classroom with you; not only because of this topic but because of other things you have said to people personally or on facebook in which you seem to undermine women’s abilities in general. 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.

Yet in speaking to the press, Savery asserted that True was banned because of a pattern of disruptive behavior in class. Another conference member alleged that in addition to making a number of controversial comments, one week, True “began the class abruptly and loudly in an angry tone, reading the Honor Principle stating how no student should face a hostile environment, and demanding an apology of only female members of the class despite the equally strong reaction by the male ones” to True’s opinions.

Obviously, it’s not entirely clear what happened. However, unless True has omitted portions of Savery’s email from his petition to be allowed back into the class, one can’t help but notice that the professor’s written explanation of his decision focuses solely on the content of True’s speech and the discomfort it caused others. Regardless of what happened with True, such a decision is likely to have a chilling effect on Reed students, who may choose not to share controversial opinions rather than risk punishment.

As a private college, Reed is not bound by the First Amendment. But it is legally and morally obligated to follow its own written policies, which are clear:

Reed College considers the right of free speech, and therefore that of dissent to be fundamental to its life as an academic community. The exercise of the right of dissent is not something to be grudgingly tolerated, but actively encouraged.

Reed’s policies emphasize that “expressions of opinions that some people find abhorrent must at times be tolerated.” Before True’s ban from the classroom and the subsequent media coverage, students matriculating at Reed could reasonably expect that they could express themselves without fear of punishment. (And make no mistake about it, getting banned from class is a form of punishment.)

Any student who has read Savery’s email as it has been reported, however, can no longer be confident in his or her ability to voice unpopular opinions in front of people whom they might make “uncomfortable.”

As FIRE has written before, much of the political speech the First Amendment was written to protect could make people highly uncomfortable. And although all but a handful of colleges have a legal obligation under Title IX to respond to known conduct that creates a “hostile environment” based on sex, both the federal agency that enforces Title IX and the Supreme Court of the United States have made clear that speech cannot be punished as harassment just because of someone’s subjective reaction to it. Per the Court, punishable expression must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” (Emphasis added.) Lower courts have echoed this principle in a range of cases.

In contrast, Savery’s email appears to cite only the subjective feelings of True’s classmates. It does not allege True disrupted the class or provide any objective assessment of his conduct. In effect, the email (as relayed to the public, at least) sends the message that students can only safely maintain views that will offend no one—a result that is flatly incompatible with freedom of expression.

To counter this, Savery and the Reed administration must tell students in unequivocal terms that expressing ideas that simply make fellow students uncomfortable does not justify punishment at Reed. Reed must reaffirm its stated commitment to freedom of expression and promise that it will not take action—or allow professors to take action—against students solely on the basis of subjective discomfort with a student’s viewpoint. Determining what exactly happened in True’s Humanities 110 classroom may take time, but this clarification of what freedom of expression means at Reed can and must happen now so that students do not censor themselves based on Savery’s email as they follow this still-developing story.

Schools:  Reed College