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March 28, 2013

Overcoming Shalala and the Speech-Code Movement

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By Donald A. Downs

Remarks delivered upon acceptance of the Bradley Foundation's Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Award, March 15.                                                    

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Commitment to the principles of academic freedom was tested when new forces of politically correct censorship and thought control began to sweep higher education in the later 1980s, the latest historic example of a moralistic movement that considers academic freedom a hindrance to its ascendency. Before you knew it, speech codes, excessively broad harassment codes, and related policies cropped up across the land. To me, it was existential....The University of Wisconsin was a renowned pioneer in the rise of academic freedom in the United States, and our official University motto is dedicated to "that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

But in the late 1980s the University prided itself on being a pioneer of a different sort. We considered ourselves a leader of the national speech code movement under the chancellorship of Donna Shalala. Before long, there was less sifting and less winnowing, at least in some important areas. By the early 1990s we felt a pall being case over the campus when it came to free speech and thought regarding such controversial issues as race, gender, sex, religion, and related matters that were covered by the new codes.

It took a while, but we eventually rose to the occasion. After learning about several cases of repression due to the new agenda on campus, in 1996 we organized a unique group of about 15 faculty members and an outside legal counsel who is as active as we, along with student allies. We called ourselves the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights--CAFAR. I admit that our acronym is less impressive than that of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education--FIRE! FIRE is hands-down the leading national organization defending academic freedom broadly understood. We are "acronymically challenged," as it were, compared to FIRE. But we were serious and effective, and even served as one model for what later became FIRE in 1999. And to this day, we have worked with FIRE on several matters, as well our own cases.

I was a leader of CAFAR from the start, and have been its president since 2000. Like the employees of FIRE, the members of CAFAR (and our student allies) are the type of individuals you need to build a successful movement: you can count on them when going gets tough. I consider leading this group to be the most memorable aspect of my career along with the privilege of teaching. CAFAR and its allies have been diverse, consisting of individuals with different politics, religions, races, genders, sexual orientations, etc. And we defend and promote academic freedom regardless of whose ox is being gored.

My time is limited, so let me just mention a handful of our key successes. You can read more about the Wisconsin story and CAFAR in my book, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus. Order several copies for yourself, your friends, and, especially, your enemies!  The following are just a few of our many efforts:

  • In 1999, CAFAR let an effort in the Faculty Senate that resulted in the abolition of the faculty speech code in the classroom. This was unprecedented: the first time that a speech code was abolished not by a court order but by the faculty itself.
  • In 2000 we compelled the administration to dismantle a campus-wide system of anonymous complaint boxes that encouraged individuals to file complaints against others for saying insensitive things. We repeated this effort in 2007 regarding an online version of this program.
  •  In the mid-2000s, we persuaded some departments and schools to drop what amounted to speech codes disguised as "professional conduct" codes.
  •  In 2010, CAFAR and the University Committee led the way in persuading the Faculty Senate to pass a rule that explicitly protected the right of all faculty members to criticize University policies and practices.
  •  CAFAR has publicly supported free speech and academic freedom when it came under attack, including several cases involving the Badger Herald student paper and a multitude of policy issues.
  • CAFAR has provided legal and moral support to about 20 individuals whose academic freedom has been jeopardized at our University or other universities or colleges in Wisconsin. We have been supported in these efforts with a grant from the Bradley Foundation. We have prevailed in the vast majority of these cases.

Let me conclude by stressing the lesson that I take away from all this: mobilization on behalf of academic freedom is essential. Courts are distant, and their rulings are often either ignored or fudged around. When you mobilize for freedom, you develop an infrastructure that can remain in place for future action, and you have to persuade others to take your principles seriously. You have to convince other minds, which then establishes a better environment for your beliefs. This is what we have accomplished at Wisconsin to some meaningful extent, and which FIRE has done at the national level. At Wisconsin, we were able to appeal to our heritage of academic freedom, which many non-involved faculty took seriously when given the chance.

It is important to our nation to take such stands because universities are essential institutions in the system of free thought and inquiry that is a hallmark of our nation's mission in the world. When they stray, they need to be led back to the proper road.

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Donald A. Downs is Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.



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