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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2009

A Call to Practice What We Preach

By Michael Dabrowski

Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus

Donald Alexander Downs. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005; 318 pp; ISBN: 978-0-5218-3987-7, cloth $34.99 us; ISBN: 978-0-5216-8971-7, paper $22.99 us.
A hallmark of contemporary course outlines is the importance of developing critical thinking skills in the classroom. But how are students expected to develop these skills if they are not allowed to express or be exposed to any ideas that challenge accepted thought patterns and beliefs? This fundamental question is the undercurrent to Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus. While the focus is on American academe, the book provides valuable insights for Canadian institutions of higher ed.

We hear again and again about the importance of free speech and liberty on campus, but we seldom take stock of the price of maintaining these ideas in a higher education system that at times has little re­gard for individual freedoms in the face of external pressure. Donald Downs challenges us to look introspectively at our institutions and ourselves to decide how we can contribute to an environment that encourages open debate and protects academic freedom as a cornerstone of academic life.

The book is divided into three sections: a 60-page introduction, 200 pages of case studies and a brief 13-page conclusion. The introduction clearly lays out the historical background that led to the restriction on free speech and civil liberties on America’s campuses as a result of the “progressive” reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, which included speech codes, anti-harassment codes, sensitivity orientation programs and procedures for adjudication of student and faculty misconduct. The result is a generation of students and academics who are more guarded in their views and more fearful of saying what they think. This introduction is worth reading for anyone interested in the legal, political and social changes on campuses during the late 20th century that impacted the development of critical thinking and freedom of expression.

I braced myself for dry reading in the case studies as the 50 or so pages dedicated to each university foreshadowed, but I was pleasantly surprised by the narrative that at times read like a good crime novel unravelling the events and background information for each case. These case studies could benefit from some cuts to help focus on the central themes presented in each, but do provide valuable insights into the socio-political context for the events as they unfold.

While Downs attempts to be impartial in the presentation of the events there are definitely moments during which his position becomes apparent. This is particularly true of the Wisconsin case, in which he was directly involved. To his credit, his involvement does not bias the account of the events. How­ever, his involvement may have impaired his ability to effectively collect information from both sides, a fact he freely acknowledges.

Of particular interest is the Columbia case study that centres on the sexual misconduct policy which, based on documented un-derreporting of rape, had a mandate to increase the number of sexual misconduct complaints brought forward by enacting a process that essentially assumed guilt and stripped the accused of fundamental rights in order to encourage more accusations.

Downs underscores the importance of a large, politically organized and vocal group of students in the drafting and passing of the policy and more important the almost complete silencing of any opposition or debate due to external pressures.

It essentially became politically incorrect to challenge the extent of the reforms being undertaken and everyone sat back due to fear of public reprisal and ridicule. Downs uses this case study to demonstrate how “professors and university administrators failed to teach the basic principles of due process, civil li­berties and freedom” on campus.

The Berkley, Penn and Madi­son cases examine the universities’ commitment to encouraging diversity and the resulting lack of commitment to free speech prin­ciples when they are deemed to be de­trimen­tal to diversity.

In the Berkley case in particular, Downs focuses on the university’s failure to act as a role model for civil discourse about race issues, and charges the institution with chilling the discourse and allowing certain forms of social censorship to be tolerated, including shouting down of speakers, intimidation, death threats, theft of publications and burglary.

This example paints a very sad picture of our ability to maintain civil dialogue and debate between bpposing points of view. One has to wonder if this is a reflection of the broader political climate or vice versa. Either way, Downs con­cludes that anyone whose free speech has been violated or censored must stand up for their rights in the public forum to at­tract broader support.

He takes advantage of the case studies to cite moments when in­dividuals have both failed and risen to the challenge of defending these fundamental principles of academic life.

The conclusion is a cookbook for successful struggle for liberty on campus, summarizing approaches and strategies that were effective in the case studies in light of what Downs considers a backslide in “principles of liberal individualism and freedom.” It also discusses how speech codes and anti-harassment codes have actually had the op­po­site effect by creating a hostile environment in which students are oppressed.

Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that “everyone has the … freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression,” but unless someone stands up and fights for these freedoms they can easily and quietly be taken away in the interest of protecting people from harassment and discomfort.

Downs attempts to mobilize academics and universities to do their part to ensure these fundamental rights are not only written on paper, but also put into practice. Without them there can be no hope for creating an effective university program that de­velops critical thinking skills or a functioning free society.

Michael Dabrowski is an assistant professor of Spanish at Athabasca University.