Once upon a time, American college campuses were bastions of free expression and free speech, exemplifying all the rights the founding fathers intended the First Amendment to convey.
But no more. Increasingly, university campuses are becoming controlled speech zones, where dissent or even differences of opinion – that is, opinions that don’t jibe with those deemed politically correct – are no longer tolerated and even punished.
The latest example of this kind of authoritarian speech control occurred at a small liberal arts institution in Portland, Oregon – Reed College – which boasts of attracting students who come there to speak their mind.
As reported by Buzzfeed:
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.
True, 19, told the web site that the professor, Pancho Savery, issued repeated warnings to him that his views were making some classmates uncomfortable. On March 14 he sent True an email stating he was no longer allowed to participate in the “conference” section of his Humanities 110 course, a lecture-seminar.
‘I know many people aren’t comfortable’
“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,” said Savery in the email, obtained by BuzzFeed News.
True’s Facebook page says he studies “How to Annoy People” at Reed. He noted that he takes a certain pride in challenging the opinions of classmates.
“I know many people aren’t comfortable with taking the stances I do, but I’m not a sheep,” he said.
True went onto say that he has engaged with classmates over discussion topics pertaining to ancient Greece and Rome, including the “patriarchal” belief that logic is more important than emotion, as well as his analysis of Lucretia’s rape.
However, his silencing stemmed from his questioning of a widely shared, but highly debated (and as yet unsubstantiated) claim that 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted. He claimed that it did not serve “actual rape victims” well to “overinflate” assault numbers. Further, his rejection of the term “rape culture” also contributed to his being banned.
“I am critical of the idea of a rape culture because it does not exist,” True wrote in a lengthy email to Savery, in explaining his point of view, which he 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?”
At present some 90 colleges are under federal investigation for allegedly botching sexual violence cases. In addition, the subject of sexual assault on college campuses has become an important issue in Washington, D.C., with the Obama administration launching a task force to look into the issue and where senators have introduced bipartisan legislation that addresses it.
Reed’s own policies have also come under scrutiny, for a number of years, Buzzfeed reported. Though small, students there reported the most sex crimes of all colleges and universities throughout the state between 2010-2012; the school ranked third in the number of reported assaults per 1,000 students in 2012.
Rape hoax stories have led to doubts
“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.”
Activists around the country have welcomed the crackdown on alleged cases of sexual assault as long overdue. However, some politicians and commentators concerned about free speech have criticized Reed and other schools for clamping down on expression.
Hoax stories like one that appeared in Rolling Stone – in which a reporter completely fabricated a gang-rape crime at the University of Virginia simply to advance a “rape culture” narrative – have not helped clear the air, either. And in fact, such hoax stories have helped feed skepticism that sexual assault is as widespread a problem on university campuses as some have claimed.
But at one school in Oregon, questioning the accepted political position can get you banned.