Lessons from the Trenches: A Review of Free Speech and Liberal Education

April 2021

Donald Alexander Downs, Free Speech and Liberal Education: A Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance, Washington, DC, Cato Institute 2020 (Hardcover, 270 pages)

Universities must allow the free flow of ideas since this is the best way to separate the wheat from the chaff. By contrast, censorship prevents exposure to ideas, some of which may bless our civilization while others that are less than satisfactory can be more easily debunked when exposed to intellectual scrutiny.

While many will argue that such ideals for universities are mere illusions representing bygone eras (or eras that never existed), all of that is beside the point. They remain ideals we can continually strive to more closely attain. And while a university with unlimited freedom of speech may never have existed, the problem today is that such an ideal seems to be more and more elusive, with too many folks seeming to like it that way. Censorship, cancel culture, and persecution (of one sort or another) of speech deemed “inappropriate” or “offensive” is alive and well, nay flourishing, not only within universities, but well beyond as indoctrinees leaving the academy for the “real world” spread the political correctness they learned in school.

Enter Donald Alexander Downs, an emeritus professor of political science, as well as an affiliate professor of law and journalism emeritus at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). His freedom of speech bona fides were established with Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus (2005) and continue with his recent and timely publication, Free Speech and Liberal Education (2020). Readers might initially perceive that Professor Downs is insufficiently “woke” by noting his choice of a publisher, the libertarian Cato Institute. After all, our enlightened leftists deem “libertarianism” to be “far-right”, which presumably implies that “those people” identifying as “libertarian” are “offensive” and never to be tolerated in “polite society”. They must be ferreted out and humiliated, if not fired and/or stripped of their titles. And here we have Professor Downs (methinks a left-leaning liberal at odds with “progressives”) associating with “that bunch”. It is often said that we judge people by the company they keep. Critical Theorists who believe speech they dislike is often “violent” and “hateful” will not be amused by those defending it. Permit me the additional sarcasm to suggest they may ultimately plagiarize Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano, by demanding that Downs’ alma maters strip him his PhD, Masters, and Bachelors degrees, in addition to his emeritus status. But hush; best not to give them any ideas!!

Some stress that abuses of free speech are overblown and infrequent, and we can certainly hope their assessment is closer to the truth, while hastening to add that, in the case of free speech, perfection really is the enemy of the good. One violation of speech/expression rights is one too many, and, in recent years, our SAFS Newsletter has documented numerous abuses in Canada alone. And Downs cites several more stateside, while offering possible solutions which, if implemented, may help restore free speech, liberty, and freedom generally to our campuses.

Downs believes the pursuit of knowledge in universities, while important, is secondary to the quest for truth; for truth is the basis for knowledge. And attaining both requires the free flow of ideas and the give and take of debate, plus continuous critiques, even of many things considered unassailable. Civilizational progress requires it. As a case in point, Downs reminds us that the American civil rights movement in the sixties owed much of its success to this freedom of speech ideal; obviously a necessary precondition for airing its legitimate grievances.

Also important, but not as wide ranging as freedom of speech, is academic freedom, which allows professors and their students the latitude to seek truth and knowledge within their specific disciplines free from censorship, but subject to critiques from their peers. Obviously, intellectual standards are important in this context and Downs makes the valid point that it is inappropriate for a physics professor to devote class time discussing a recent election. Yet this is an over the top hypothetical and (hopefully?) unrepresentative of the modern campus.

Of more concern is the abundance of campus trip wires, which create chills deterring the free flow of ideas. Indeed, Downs discusses microaggression lists, trigger warnings, affirmative consent policies, bias reporting programs, safe spaces, speaker shout-downs, disinvitations, and the severing of speech-action distinctions. Under these nightmare scenarios, it is unseemly to suggest that “the most qualified person should get the job”; professors are supposed to anticipate everything in their lectures and assigned readings that may offend, even emotionally hurt, someone somewhere; when dating, obtain verbal consent step by step throughout the process, an approach appropriate for an hilarious romantic comedy; wayward students (or professors) making off-colour comments while imbibing at the local watering hole should be reported; Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald should be forcibly prevented from giving a lecture; Condoleezza Rice should be disinvited; and speech one dislikes should be equated with violence, while Antifa thugs doing the “real deal” in Portland, Seattle, and other cities are ignored. Fortunately, the “wokerati” had the presence of mind to rightfully condemn the January 6th DC rioters, not that it was hard given the (supposedly???) conflicting ideologies. But while their “ends” may be different, a seeming indifference to Antifa suggests a tolerance for the same “means”.

To his credit, Downs devotes some time and space to iGens (those born between 1995 and 2012) and their greater tendency to be more tolerant of minorities - certainly a good thing - but also to be “victims” of “helicopter parenting” and to support such things as “safe spaces” and censorship. Sheltered from the dark side of human nature, many of them never learn to cope with their “inner fears” or adversity generally. Maybe this helps explain why a critical mass of today’s students seem to remain psychosocially trapped in adolescence, unable to cope with speech they find offensive or otherwise troubling, and too quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go their way. Chronologically they are adults, yet they expect to be coddled by substitute parents, whether in the form of universities, governments, or other institutions. How will such people ever cope in a real crisis? What would our elders who went through the Depression and Second World War think? As Downs correctly notes, “struggling with the conflicts and tensions that exist in the world [helps one become] a mature and successful adult” (p 176). Naturally, this includes exposure to many different ideas, including some that are unpleasant.

Downs reminds us that the US First Amendment protects free speech at public universities, then adds that many of their private counterparts also have statements of principles or other declarations respecting this most basic of rights. Furthermore, Section 2(b) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms endows us with the same guarantee, whether on or off campus. But as wonderful as these documents may be, they are only as good as an aggrieved party’s willingness to invoke them and take offenders to task. Reluctance to fight back only emboldens bullies, thereby permitting an intolerable situation to deteriorate even further. And while Downs doesn’t mention it, it is also incumbent upon we retirees with no skin in the game to help, perhaps by writing and/or speaking out against the tyranny that is cancel culture. No university can expel us and no employer can fire us.

Good news!! Additional help is available. Downs recommends FIRE, the Heterodox Academy, NAS, and the AAUP, and in Canada we have SAFS, CAUT, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, plus “alternative media”, including Rebel News Network, True North, and Post Millennial, who would only be too happy to assist. Downs also suggests the ACLU, although one fears (perhaps unfairly) they will gleefully subordinate speech rights to social justice and critical theory. Their Ontario “Human Rights” Commission cousins were certainly no help to Jordan Peterson.

To his credit, Downs stresses that freedom of speech rights must apply to all. Kudos to UW-Madison CAFAR (Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights) for “following the letter of the law” back in 2006 when they defended a UW-Whitewater student group’s right to invite far-left professor, Ward Churchill, to speak.

Finally, Downs rightfully condemns riots and hecklers’ vetoes, but stresses everyone’s right to peacefully protest. Likewise, everyone, including those who object to the speaker, should have an opportunity to pose questions upon conclusion of the lecture.

I’ll conclude by noting that Downs addresses the campus speech suppression problem in a professional, low-key, and diplomatic manner, which may have more appeal with academically inclined readers. Yet the woke cancel culture critical theorists are the “mean girls of the high school” (“girls” meant in the generic gender neutral sense) and any defense or reclamation of free speech, liberty, and the right to peacefully assemble might require a more robust approach when dealing with these bullies. Rex Murphy is the perfect example of a public intellectual who presents excellent points in defense of our cherished freedoms, while skillfully dissecting politically correct worldviews with satire that is scathing, merited, and more enjoyable for the reader. Free Speech and Liberal Education lacks the biting wit that could reduce these social justice zealots to the absurd. Yet in fairness, that may not be Downs’ style. He has certainly gifted us with an analytical, well argued, and highly worthwhile contribution to the free speech debate. We also owe him a tremendous debt for his years spent in the trenches.