Jeremiah True, Reed College, and the limits of free speech

Sometimes there are more important things than unfettered expression. Like common courtesy.

Reed College, a tiny liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, was in the news last week for supposed academic oppression. Jeremiah True, a freshman student there, was kicked out of his Humanities 110 conference for the rest of the semester by his professor, Pancho Savery. In an interview with BuzzFeed, True claimed it was because he questioned the commonly cited statistic that one in five American women have been raped.

But in an interview with Reason, Savery disputed that story: "He was not banned because of what he said but because of a series of disruptive behaviors." (True will still get credit if he finishes the rest of the class.)

I don't know what happened in that class. But I know this: Freewheeling debate is a valuable part of a good academic education, but it is not the only thing. Common courtesy and respect for one's classmates are equally important. The evidence suggests that True does not understand this.

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Full disclosure: Reed is my alma mater, though I graduated several years ago and don't personally know any of the students involved. I know Professor Savery mainly by his work, though I did meet him in passing once.

Humanities 110 is a class every freshman or transfer student must take. It's an introduction to literature and composition, focusing on the ancient classics. You read Homer, Herotodus, Sappho, Plato, Aristotle, bits of the Bible, and a whole lot more — the pace is quite stiff. For such a notoriously left-wing school, it's a rather old-fashioned kind of class, yet much beloved by students and professors alike. I can still remember the Greek words of the first line of The Iliad, taught at the very first lecture.

There are mass lectures three times per week, and a conference after each lecture comprised of 10 to 15 students. This is an introduction to discussion and debate. Hopefully everyone has done the reading, and has interesting questions or comments. (Of course, many haven't, and try to bull through with nonsense about poststructuralism and whatnot.)

In short, it's about history, literature, reading, and writing, but also about learning to interact maturely with other young scholars.

The introductory nature of the course, combined with the fact that even gormless science majors like myself had to take it, put "the relentless pursuit of truth" a ways down the conference agenda. Groundbreaking scholarship on Aristotle is likely not going to happen there — and a class paper would be the place for it in any case. It's about learning to flex your brain, not no-holds-barred academic brawls.

This brings me back to Mr. True. Upon getting kicked out, he registered a petition to demanding to be reinstated in his class, complete with a 3,500-word manifesto laying out his case. It makes for disturbing reading. Statistical quibbling about rape statistics are interspersed seemingly at random with copy-pasted emails, embrace of right-wing "Freedom Feminism," insistence on his free speech rights, an explicit comparison between himself and Jesus, and an eerie peroration: "I do not want to be a martyr, but I will do that if that is what is necessary to make a statement." He sent a similar 5,600-word letter to the entire Reed faculty.

It's a mixture of messianic self-righteousness, melodrama, and gleeful trolling for attention that reminds me very much of Charles C. Johnson. And so it's not so surprising that when contacted by Reason for comment, True said he would do it only under one bizarre condition: "Before I interview with you, you must agree to make 'n****r' be the first word in your article." He said something similar to Inside Higher Ed.

True is, of course, utterly mistaken about free speech. Free speech does not include freedom from criticism, or freedom from consequences, especially not for disrupting class in a private institution.

But his conduct also misunderstands the nature of a class like Humanities 110. It's not a criminal trial, where finding out what is true gets total priority over the feelings of the participants. Regardless of the thoroughness of one's argument, sometimes simple decency is more important.

Here's a hint: If the conference discussion has suddenly become incredibly tense, perhaps it's a subject for another time or place.

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