University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) Professor Donald Downs was recently awarded the university’s Hilldale Award for Social Studies, in recognition of his significant contributions as a teacher and free speech advocate. As a founding member of UW-Madison’s Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights (CAFAR), Downs helped defeat a faculty speech code on campus in 1999, setting an example for colleges nationwide. Since then, he has continued to defend freedom of speech and academic freedom as president of CAFAR and has won awards for his books, research, and teaching on these subjects.
On Friday, the Wisconsin State Journal’s Doug Moe shared the story of how Downs became such a strong leader for free speech—he didn’t always have the same views he does now. Among the motivations for Downs’ work was a phone call he received as a guest on Wisconsin Public Radio in 1992:
Downs had voted for [a student speech] code — commonly described as an attempt to end “hate speech” on campus — but his views were evolving. He surprised the radio host by saying he now opposed the code. The right to freedom of expression, especially on a college campus, was more important.
The show took a phone call from a listener, identified as “Richard,” who said, “You have left something out. There is a worse code that you have not mentioned.”
Downs said, “What do you mean?”
“There is a faculty code,” the caller said. “I ought to know. I was investigated under it.”
There was a controversy in the art department about an effort to set standards for the evaluation of student projects. Some viewed it as a chance to discriminate based on race, religion or gender, and [Richard] Long — who didn’t support the standards but was seen as conservative — wound up the target of a discrimination probe based on comments he made to a couple of graduate students.
Unfortunately, this sort of retaliation for protected speech still happens today on college campuses, but because of the efforts of Downs and others like him, the state of free speech in higher education is much better than it would have been. As Downs pointed out in an interview for FIRE last year, all members of the university community should learn what their rights are so they can ensure those rights are protected. As he says, “If something bad happens … maybe you can do something about it.” Downs certainly has, and FIRE commends him for his decades of service and congratulates him on being given the Hilldale Award.