The Paradox of Freedom: A Conversation about the AFA, Institutional Neutrality, andSocial Media with Professor Don Downs

Mar 11, 2024 | Interviews

The Paradox of Freedom: A Conversation about the AFA, Institutional Neutrality, and Social Media with Professor Don Downs

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

Don Downs is the Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science Emeritus, an Affiliate Professor of Law, and Journalism Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has authored numerous works about free speech and academic freedom including Nazis in Skokie: Freedom, Community and the First Amendment (1985), Cornell `69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University (1999), Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus (2004), and Free Speech and Liberal Education: A Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance (2020). In 2013, Downs received the national Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award for his defense of academic freedom and freedom of thought at University of Wisconsin-Madison and in higher education generally. Professor Downs also serves on the Academic Freedom Alliance’s Academic Committee and was one of the organization’s founders. I recently interviewed him to get his thoughts about the AFA, the Kalven Report, and a variety of other academic freedom concerns. 

Howard Muncy: I would like to begin with asking about your role on the AFA’s Academic Committee. In just the next few days we will mark three years since the organization’s 2021 public launch. You’ve been on the committee since the beginning. Can you describe for our readers what that has been like and offer your thoughts about some of the organization’s accomplishments?  

Donald Downs: It has been great being involved. Obviously, we fulfill a real need out there in the polity and in education. What is interesting is our timing. We could not have been founded at a more propitious or advantageous time because of all the issues regarding free speech and academic freedom that have suddenly emerged. To be sure, these issues had been really swelling for 30 to 40 years. In a nutshell, the new, post-McCarthyism politics of free speech and academic freedom on campus erupted with the speech code movement that started in the late 1980s. Later a period of retrenchment or quiescence followed. Then sometime about 10 years ago, it all started up again. You had the disruption of Charles Murray at Middlebury College and other similar cases. The issues of free speech and academic freedom were put back on the map. Of course, you had the summer of 2020 with all the George Floyd stuff and the push for certain viewpoints on campus and exclusion of others. Then what happened on October 7th, 2023 which has really supercharged concerns about what’s happening on campus. The AFA has been right there amid all this turmoil that’s really taken on much more public notice and significance just in the last few years. And it’s not like it came out of nowhere. It did not come out of nowhere. It was already there, but it swelled, it grew, it metastasized.

I should also stress one other factor in the last decade: the explosion of new bureaucratic policies involving the oversight and policing of speech. Microaggression lists, diversity loyalty oaths for hiring and promotion, campus bias reporting programs, and burgeoning DEI departments and committees, even within individual academic departments. These are sneakier ways of achieving censorship than speech codes because they aren’t direct censorship. But they reinforce conformity of thought and act as Damocles swords hanging over even private conversations between or among individuals. Some of the applications of bias reporting have been absurd. A recent case I read about involved calling a handful of male students in for making private comments among themselves about how some women students in a snow ball fight weren’t very athletic. Even Orwell wouldn’t have made this up.

What I like is how we’re involved on different levels. One is we defend people, and I think that’s really important. Protecting individuals whose academic freedom rights have been infringed is important in its own right. They need our help and we’re there for them, for those people and for the cause. We’ve had close to 30 cases and we approach them very judiciously. We don’t just run to the press and say, hey look, here’s a case we’re doing. Instead, we act on a step-by-step basis working with a client, never doing anything against the client’s interest. But we’re also not afraid to go public if indeed that is called for. In addition to the individual cases, we do the policy issues. We make policy statements. We publish press releases and do interviews like this one. So along with all the operations and the communication outreach that you’ve been involved with, Howard, along with others, we deliver the message. We’re both a messaging and policy organization and a legal defense funding organization. The two go together because taking on cases also gets noticed and it shows that we are more than just talk. We combine intellectual output with action.

It’s been a privilege just to be part of the AFA Academic Committee and to be associated with the scholars involved. We are on the same page of things, have the same instincts, have the same kind of lens by which we approach problems, and have the same basic set of values. Given the nature of some cases, we do have initial disagreements about details and positions taken, but these exist in the context of fundamental agreement about the basic principles and what is at stake. So, we listen to one another and come to a consensus. Our deliberations are themselves a microcosm or synecdoche of the process of open and free inquiry that we defend as an organization. But there really hasn’t been all that much disagreement because we all understand what’s at stake.

HM: I’d like to jump back in time and ask about your experience as a student at Cornell University next. What shaped your desire to get into this business? What did you see at Cornell in the late 1960s that sort of looks like some of the same things that we’re seeing today?

DD: Boy, how can I package that in a concise kind of way? When people ask me the Cornell question, I open up, you know. I have even thought of doing a second book on it. So, this is revisiting the question 25 years after I did the book, and 50 years after the event. It is really what turned me into being an academic.  

The importance of social issues and racial justice issues was coming to a head in the sixties, especially in the later sixties. At the same time, the question of how a university should handle controversial issues and social change arose as a big issue. Cornell became very politicized, and there was pressure to see the issues through only one lens. The president of Cornell at the time, James Perkins, wrote a book in the mid-60s in which he declared that the purpose of the university was no longer just intellectual, but to foster progressive type change. At the same time, there was a real challenge to the authority of the university, to its disciplinary system and how Cornell would set up an academic study center dealing with race. Student mobilizers wanted an activist type center, the faculty wanted something more academic and open to different perspectives. Students became very militant and took over the student center, Willard Straight Hall to push their position. They brought in 20 rifles and kicked all the parents out for the annual Parents’ Weekend. Others got involved, and Cornell became an armed camp of sorts. There was a threat by the student movement, which started with the Afro American Society (AAS) and then spread to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other radical groups on campus. A climactic moment was reached after a deal was struck to get the students out of the student center and the faculty had to hold a vote to decide whether to give the students amnesty for the takeover of the Straight and for other illegal actions the activists had committed in the lead up to the takeover. 

So, the night before the faculty vote, 8,000 students took over Barton Hall, the large armory arena for basketball and major public events. I was in there, mainly as an observer trying to figure out what was going on. The “Barton Hall community” was there to pressure the faculty to vote for amnesty. They came very close to taking over another building. Had students done so, behind the scenes the provost had ordered 150 deputy sheriffs that were armed down at the bottom of the hill to come to campus and stop them by whatever means were necessary. That would’ve been mass chaos, because when I interviewed people who were down there for my book, former witnesses said that that the deputies were ready to use arms. They were ticked off about what was happening and they were itching for a fight. There was a hostile culture present between the Ithaca Sheriff deputies versus “the brats” of the Ivy League school. At the very last second, a professor talked the mob in Barton Hall out of storming another building by urging, “don’t take over another building until tomorrow if the faculty doesn’t support you.” He said, “A good revolutionary waits for the right moment to act.” His amazingly effective speech convinced the crowd to wait because, believe me, it was on the precipice of acting. And so, the faculty had to make a vote in the face of a real threat of violence. That posed an enormous academic freedom and free thought kind of dilemma, because the faculty’s decision was not made according to standards of fairness and reason, et cetera. It was made at the point of a gun so to speak. Deaths threats and urgings to violence swept the campus, and dozens of faculty members known to be unsympathetic to amnesty sought shelter in other homes and in hotels to ensure their safety. The next day, under tremendous pressure, the faculty voted to support the activists’ demands. 

Three professors from the government department, resigned, claiming that this vote was a violation of principles of an institution that’s supposed to decide things by reason, not threats, not violence. Alan Bloom, the famous professor of political theory, Walter Burns, a well-known professor of constitutional law, and, Alan Sindler, a noted professor of American government, all resigned on the spot. The climate on campus following the ordeal was such now that if you spoke out against what happened you would be accused of all sorts of bad things and threatened. 

It essentially became an academic freedom question. I watched all that unfold. At that time, I pretty much sided with the activist students. I was 20 years old and going along with it. But in the aftermath of the crisis, I was exposed to the counter arguments as to how this settlement was going to harm the university. Critics of what transpired had the foresight to see that this was the beginning of a different kind of university, a university that was based on pushing for a particular notion of social justice or a particular notion of politics, and that this was the politicization of the university. The whole event opened my mind to three things: one, the question of the proper mission of the university and its role in society; two, the role of academic freedom in defining that institution; and three, the problem of turning the university into a political party or a political organization. Cornell to me, was really kind of a harbinger or foreshadowing of the future in all this. Seeing all these issues that were so important, how best to resolve them, really set me on a path. And I should stress something else: had it not been for the courageous faculty members who spoke out against what had come down—and there were others besides Bloom, Berns, and Sindler. Historian Walter LaFeber spoke out, as did historian Donald Kagan, who later told me that he wished he hadn’t already resigned to go to Yale because that meant he could formally resign like Bloom, Berns, and Sindler—I would have been exposed to only the activists’ side of the issue. It’s a classic example of the importance of hearing all relevant viewpoints. 

I happened to have gone to and taught at schools that had dealt with a lot of campus politics issues over the years. I went to Cornell and then grad school at Berkeley, the home of the free speech movement and ground zero the student radical movement. I taught briefly at Michigan; home of the Port Huron Statement written by the SDS in 1962. So that was the beginning, even before the free speech movement by two years. I’ve been at Wisconsin for 30 years, which was an epicenter for the anti-war movement and many major issues that came after that, including being a pioneer in the speech code movement that took off nationally in the late 1980s under the aegis of chancellor Donna Shalala. Wisconsin was also a leader in the national drive to institutionalize academic freedom in the early twentieth-century and in resisting McCarthyistic loyalty oaths in the 1950s. And from the late 1980s into the early 2000s, we had more free speech controversies than perhaps any university in country according to FIRE’s president, Greg Lukianoff. 

So, it’s been part of my career to be involved in wrestling with these things. I’ve written about these aspects of campus politics and participated in them, especially at Madison. These are important social issues, and a university has a particular role in helping us think more creatively and more rationally about how to deal with these problems in a way that’s conducive to intellectual freedom rather than just pushing a cause that disregards the importance of dissent and disagreement. I think that’s sort of how it all kind of fits together for me. And it means that the issue of institutional neutrality is of special significance to me.


HM: That will feed perfectly into the next couple of questions. In just the last year, you’ve been involved with helping draft two statements in an effort to right the ship. In September 2023 the Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry were made public and last month you assisted with the language of the joint statement released by the AFA, FIRE, and Heterodox Academy. Both included recommendations of adopting a policy of institutional neutrality as found in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report. First, we can begin with the Princeton Principles. You were part of that 15-person drafting committee. What was that experience like and was Kalven addressed directly and early within the group?

 DD: It seemed to me at the time that it was kind of just understood that we were going to include Kalven. I wrote the original draft for what we did, kind of a skeletal thing. It got changed a lot. We had a wonderful group who presented their views on it and the revision process really improved my original draft. We were able to make it a richer statement through our collaboration. 

I remember putting Kalven in there right away. I just figured that it was an obvious component of what we were trying to do. And I don’t think, when I look back on it, that there was any significant dissent about putting the Kalven principles in it.  But there was some initial discussion about whether it should be seen as more of an important tangent to the core academic freedom/free inquiry foundation of our project. And there was some concern that it could distract from our core message. But a consensus emerged that we should keep it. There was considerable refinement to explain more about our reasoning in the whole report, more so than I think with the question of retaining Kalven or not. The reason is because the Kalven Report is pretty integral to what we were all trying to accomplish in terms of pushing or preserving the mission of the university as a place where academic freedom is an indispensable means to the pursuit of truth and the development of knowledge, and making sure that the institution itself doesn’t try to steer where that discussion among scholars and students should lead is really important to maintaining that mission. So, it seems right from the start that it was a logical component of what we were doing, and there really wasn’t much disagreement about it in the end

HM: You were also involved in drafting the AFA, FIRE, Heterodox Academy joint statement made last month that focused exclusively on institutional neutrality. Can you describe that experience and have you received any feedback?  

DD:  Well, I wouldn’t say I took the lead but I helped to get the ball rolling along with others. I proposed an initial draft but it was too long because I felt the need to explain why institutional neutrality is needed for trustees and regents to fully fathom the problem. Our friends at FIRE, did a great job of picking out the essentials and made it a much better piece. Back to an earlier point about not wanting to read something too long, we didn’t want the regents to start reading the letter and then put it aside after a page and a half. I’ve had just a couple people, members of AFA, that contacted me. Perhaps others may have gotten more.

HM: I want to go back to a few things you mentioned in the opening question. Since October 7th and last December’s congressional testimony from the presidents of Penn, Harvard, and MIT, the Kalven Report has been pushed to the forefront of many internal conversations. But prior to that, the pressure for institutions to make statements had been on the rise for some time. The George Floyd incident of 2020 in Minnesota is a strong example. The aftermath following the release of that video created an environment where there was a real rush for institutions, both corporate and academic, to condemn not only the police officers, but an entire justice system that allowed it to happen. Even those with strong feelings that a serious injustice had occurred, but who wanted to wait for all the facts to come out, were labeled with complicit guilt for not taking an immediate stand on all points. Individuals certainly have the right to arrive at and express their opinions as they see fit, but institutional stances on nearly any controversial or contested matter can signal “case closed,” correct? 

DD: Well, think if you’re a juror in a case. You are not supposed to be rushing to a conclusion about the defendant until you hear all the evidence. There should be a presumption of innocence. So certainly, when he went to trial, that presumption had to be there, along with the proper mindset that there might be facts of which you are unaware and that what you have heard might be wrong or incomplete. Keep an open mind. That approach gets right to what a university’s supposed to be. It is there to teach us to be more thoughtful and to think critically about things with questioning minds so that we don’t jump to wrong or incomplete conclusions, and that we don’t let our knowledge be influenced by our passions. The passion for knowledge, the passion to know, that should be there. But this passion must be guided by reason and due doubt. The university should teach us how to think, not what to think.

And it goes all the way back to Plato.  Philosophers must love the truth. It’s not just a purely abstract kind of thing. He wants to put the mind and the spirit together. You should not let your prejudice get in the way of the truth. But you also have to love the pursuit of truth for it to prevail in a political world, which is a world of struggle. And if the truth is complicated, or gray, then you need to address it that way and look at all the different angles before you can make a decision. That’s what education is supposed to do. That’s what a trial is supposed to do, too, where the jury is exposed to–two different arguments, to the defense and the prosecution, and is supposed to sift and winnow through everything to come as close to the truth as is humanly possible and, therefore, a just verdict. That’s the role responsibility that citizens have in a democratic society, similar to the jury process at its best.

I’ve always looked at the two roles as similar in that sense, only the university deals with more intellectual matters. In order to think, you have to know how to think and you need to know things. Knowledge and thinking are distinct, but dialectical partners. Your example of George Floyd, I think is right on the money. Many people rushed to judgment, which often happens with a notorious crime, even if that initial judgment is validated in the end. But there are complicating questions as to the level of criminal culpability, if any, that had to be worked through in the trial process. How much was standard police procedure followed and not followed? These and others are tough questions that the jury and thoughtful observers had to take into consideration when looking at everything that’s relevant to the situation. That’s why we had the trial. The jury must hear all relevant evidence that is not prejudicial in the legal sense, and must be thoughtful about it, not rush to judgment and not let emotion marginalize objective judgment. 

But liberal polities add a complicating point here that Plato should have emphasized: we should love truth, but also realize that we are flawed and often wrong. The Innocence Project has shown us that verdicts can be wrong despite the best efforts to get it right. No conclusion should ever go unquestioned or be seen as sacred. Political theorist Dana Villa nailed it in his book Socratic Citizenship when he said that even the most moral of opinion slides into tyranny if it goes unchallenged or unquestioned. That also happens to be the theory of free speech jurisprudence. Higher Ed today is beset with too many dogmas. And when the institution takes public stances on things that are beyond its core academic mission, it exacerbates this pre-existing problem.

HM: Another environment that comes to mind is the aftermath of the events that happened on September 11, 2001. I bring up this example up because it occurred in an era before social media and smart phones. But if there was a survey, or vote, to what a proper response should be to the terrorists’ attack that same evening, I can only imagine what angry Americans would have chosen. Critics may claim that ultimately the response was haphazard anyway, but the instant preferred retaliation is almost unthinkable.  I would like to get your thoughts on how social media fits into this complex issue of neutrality, because in many ways social media allows for the quick survey of Americans on particular issues, which in turn leads to collective pressure to adopt immediate positions. 

DD: Yeah. The other thing is that people have preconceived notions or pictures of what had to have happened. What Walter Lippmann wrote about the paucity of knowledge with which people think about public issues is as true today as it was when he wrote a century ago. People take the stimulus of the incident and put it into their own preexisting assumptions or frameworks, their own preexisting pictures and paradigms in their minds. We all do this regardless of how well educated we think we are. The tribalization of our society has encouraged that. Tribalization is in human nature, as thinkers like Jon Rauch and Jonathan Haidt have stressed. Resisting the pull is hard, but it is what education is supposed to do, turn naturally prejudiced people into thoughtful people. The politicization of life pushes in the other direction.  And to think that the original promise of the internet was to open our minds to see the broader complexity of things. But in many ways, it’s increased tribalization and silo-thinking. 

It goes back to your comment that we pick what we want from it, and it reinforces our silos. The membrane around our silos is often prejudiced or preconceived with ideas that we’re very passionate about and want to hang on to. The purpose of thoughtfulness and education is to open that membrane. It’s probably a horrible metaphor here, but I’m reading a book on cells right now. So, I guess the point is to challenge that membrane, to open our minds rather than closing them. The irony, the paradox, is that social media has contributed to the closing of our minds perhaps more than opening our minds, which seems utterly counterintuitive, doesn’t it? And when social media becomes a big deal inside the university, it completely challenges the idea of the open university, which again, takes us back to Kalven.

HM: Of course, the other way that social media is weaponized is in coordinated efforts to “cancel” individuals who may challenge or research alternative explanations. As you mentioned, the new platforms used to advance speech can also have the chilling effect of demanding consensus and discouraging dissent.   

DD: It is using speech to do the opposite of freeing discourse. Social media bullying is a huge problem in higher education today, and we have never had more tools to empower it than we do now. “We the People” is being marginalized by “We the Bullies.” You know, it encourages lynch mob justice. On the other side of the coin, universities have also often gone too far in enacting on line speech codes that prohibit too much online discussion in the way the older speech codes have done. So, you have two things to worry about here. FIRE is always fighting bad online codes, and a few years ago I worked with FIRE’s Azhar Majeed to clean up UW-Madison’s online speech rules to earn them a “Green Light” from FIRE. We got great assistance from UW-Madison’s head lawyer, Ray Taffora in this effort, by the way.

Our principles and the Kalven principles encourage individual professors and groups of professors—so long as there’s voluntary agreement or a voluntary membership in that group—to speak out on any issue whether inside or outside of the Kalven line. They may speak out and the marketplace will take care of itself. If it ends up that 99% of the campus faculty and student body sign on as a group, then so be it, so long as they tolerate dissent to their own position. The campus marketplace, independent of the administration and its units, have voluntarily spoken on their own. They are the heart and soul of the institution, not the administration. To think otherwise is to reinstitute a kind of paternalism in the intellectual realm. When the administration and officials take a stance on something that is not clearly an indelible part of the academic mission, it poses three problems: it can make those who disagree appear as pariah’s—implicitly or worse—thereby turning living opinion into dogma and marginalizing dissent; it can come across as paternalistic, marginalizing the authority of the campus marketplace as the ultimate arbiter of ideas, reinstituting an intellectual version of in loco parentis; and it makes the institution look partisan in a country that is already poised to accuse it as such. The last thing I tolerated in my career was for the university administration to tell me what to think, or to publicly acclaim what amounts to a party line. 

More broadly, one of the most important issues in constitutional law is who has the authority to make the final decision? The whole theory of checks and balances is premised on allocating this “who.” When it comes to the question of “what to think,” the ultimate decision is with each of us as a free individual. We can speak with a group whom we choose to join or echo, but the bottom line is it has to be each person’s own choice and thought. When the university takes an institutional side on a matter that does not deal with the core academic mission that we all must share as members of the scholarly community, it becomes the final arbiter of what should be thought, not we the campus citizens.

So, interestingly, if there is a dogma, it must be that there should be no dogma. Intellectual freedom is non-negotiable. But even this dogma must be open to being challenged in thought, speech, and criticism—but not in conduct and policy. Call this the paradox of freedom. 

I should add that some critics of Kalven today argue that it ironically can exacerbate politicizing the university in its own right if it is weaponized by activists from across the political spectrum. This critique has to be reckoned with, especially in our politicized world in which consensus is harder and harder to find. One remedy to this potential is arranging how the policy is enforced, which is a practical and strategic question. All policies have flaws, but I think it is well worth the risk adopting neutrality, though we do have to do it the right way and be cognizant of the potential defects. 

HM: My final question includes a common criticism of institutional neutrality. Some view this sort of neutrality as a rejection of the opportunity to cultivate and form young moral individuals.  This may mean two very different things to the left and right, but the argument comes from both sides. To add to this, the decaying or graying of organizations and associations that were once instrumental in this capacity has created a vacuum that educational institutions increasingly fill. Many have critiqued the transformation of K-12 education into too much of a parental endeavor where learning is almost secondary to health, safety, clothing, hygiene, diet, etc. It is an alarming trend touched on in works like Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind and John Agresto’s The Death of Learning.  Is this mindset also creeping upward into higher ed where more and more faculty view the responsibility of the institution as one to fill the deficiencies of civil society? In short, what would you say to someone who argues that institutional neutrality betrays basic premises of morality?     

DD: One question I’ve seen raised is, again, it goes to the question of neutrality in principle. Does the fact of an institution’s neutrality regarding public issues imply a kind of amoral posture in general? Is it a form of nihilism? Are there moral limits to research and the pursuit of truth? Have we taken too big a bite out of that original apple? One thinks of the Manhattan Project and contemporary concerns over artificial intelligence and CRISPR/Cas-9 genetic splicing. This question lies beyond the scope of our interview, but I want to conclude by mentioning that it deals with similar questions about neutrality and morality that we have been discussing. Late in his career, the great sociologist Philip Rieff, whose work I deeply respect, grew concerned about how scientific moral neutrality and excessive tolerance were leading society down a dangerous path in which individual freedom is unmoored from virtue. My take is that it depends on context.

Scientific inquiry has its own internal moral standards relating to evidence, testing and challenging, and intellectual honesty. This value system is important. But it largely is up to other institutions to provide other substantive thoughts and guardrails. In our society, these guardrails come from intellectual standards themselves as well as such institutions in civil society as the family, religion, neighborhood groups, and other private institutions and organizations that instill values of community and ethics. Tocqueville thought that what he called “political freedom” in America presupposed and required such institutions to hold society together and to make living in freedom viable and sustainable. Free people must, as Alexander Meiklejohn, the great libertarian free speech theorist and philosopher of education, wrote, “govern themselves.” They must control their own passions and lives, lest the state do it for them. He wrote that “self-government” and “self-control” were two sides of the same coin.

And where does self-control come from? Are higher education institutions being asked to perform new duties in the wake of civil institutions’ decline, feeling obligated to make moral decisions for their students? Many observers of primary and secondary schools feel this trend has compelled them to perform basic functions that were once the duties of other institutions. If so, the debate over Kalven cuts even deeper than most people realize.

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