A Brief History of Campus Censorship: An Interview with Donald Downs


Prof. Don Downs:     


FIRE is a trustworthy organization.  If you’re in trouble for the wrong reasons, you’re going to be able to count on FIRE.  The ‘60s were a period of forment on campus.  Also a period where you started having censorship coming from the left for the first time.  It happened at my school.  Shout downs in class.  One of my colleagues had a hard time teaching some of his courses because of student disruptions. 


Berkley Free Speech Movement, John Searle, famous philosopher who was one of the four faculty advisors for the free speech movement on Berkley told me that within a month of the free speech movement winning its victory, it was no longer a free speech movement because they wouldn’t tolerate speech that disagreed with their position.  So it wasn’t really about free speech.  It was about their political cause.  So after the ‘60s, you had about a 15-year period where there was relative freedom of speech.  I always sort of considered that the unknown sort of heyday of free speech  on campus.


1987 has been a talked about as sort of a turning point year.  It was a year that speech codes started percolating.  There was a whole network of administrators around the country and university presidents sort of got on the speech code bandwagon.  The climate started changing.  You could really feel it.  A former student of mine that was in law school at the time said that it was almost like a new weather front coming through that you could feel.  His first semester in ’86-’87 was relatively warm and then cold.


Follow the money, that will show you where the institution’s real focus is.  In my university, all the money goes to programs for sensitivity, diversity, and etc.  There is no money that goes to academic freedom.  There’s no money that goes to free speech at all.  Law is not self-executing.  


It depends on who’s there to check to make sure it’s being obeyed.  Also, it matters who’s going to apply it.  Some people that are put into a positions of applying these things, they don’t have any training in academic freedom.  They don’t have any training in free speech.  Also, their entire professional incentive system rewards them for not valuing that as much as other kinds of things which are valid things like diversity, appropriate sensitivity.  So you end up getting people applying that are not going to do it in a principled way.


When you go to college, read books that tell you what college is supposed to be about.  Read John Stuart Mill, no.  Read Jonathan Rauch.  Read Unlearing Liberty.  So you know A, what a college is supposed to be doing and then it will give you an informed perspective on which to see whether or not that’s happening.  So you’ll know if something bad happens.  Then if something bad happens, talk to a lot of people that you have trust in.  So maybe you can get a critical core of people that feel the same way so you’re not alone and maybe you can do something about it.


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Duration: 3 minutes