Donald Downs Engages Free Speech Discussion

With recent protests at UC Berkeley, Charlottesville and other college campuses nationwide, the overarching question of what free speech means, why it matters and how it is applied is a question that is now heavily debated among students, faculty and universities in general.  

The politics of the First Amendment were discussed by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Daniel Downs this past Thursday, Oct. 19 at Lecture Center 102. 

Downs was brought to campus by Free Speech Task Force member Daniel Lipson, and introduced by SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian and Lipson, respectively. 

The task force was organized in 2016 by President Christian after the cancellation of a debate, entitled, “How the Media Can Sway Votes and Win Elections” on March 30. The debate, scheduled to be between Jeff Cohen, founder of liberal media organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Cliff Kincaid, director of  Accuracy in Media (AIM) Center for investigative journalism, was declared cancelled by Mike Patterson, director of the Office of Student Activities and Union Services after a string of emails by faculty concerned about Kincaid’s perceived problematic views.

Kincaid, according to Lipson, has questionable credibility, but he did not wish to see the event cancelled because it only “reinforced the narrative that liberals are intolerant of other views.” Although the cancellation was viewed as liberals versus conservatives and centered on issue of political correctness, the main apprehension, in Lipson’s opinion, was the fairly inaccurate views of Kincaid. 

“I found his blogs which said that Obama was a marijuana driven drug addict and things that spouted unsubstantiated theories,” Lipson said. “I don’t think that we need to buy into this story that liberals rule and conservatives are repressed, but rather, the school should bring in people who are simply experts in their field, those who have the credentials to criticize a radical left direction, the main purpose of the task force.”

Enter acclaimed political science and law professor of UW-Madison, Donald Downs,  whose work primarily focuses on the First Amendment: the freedom of speech. 

In 2013, Downs received the national Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award for his “defense of academic freedom and freedom of thought at UW-Madison and in higher education generally,” and won the University’s 2014 Hilldale Award in Social Studies for “a Distinguished Career in Research, Teaching, and Service.”

“Downs is really passionate,” Lipson said. “He doesn’t shut people shown, he engages with people and discusses various points, tilting between liberal and conservative.”

During his lecture, Downs pinpointed the various aspects of freedom of speech, believing that free speech is “the greatest of all reflections of human nature,” a statement mirroring the famous line of James Madison. 

Downs also cited issues that happened within UW-Madison, such as the rallies that neo-Nazis and the Westboro Baptist Church held within the area. He said students from his First Amendment class worked together to figure out a way to protest against them, but in a way that honored First Amendment principles: protest but don’t disrupt. The result was successful.

Disrupting a lawful speaker, according to Downs, is a violation of the person, the people who simply want to hear them and the First Amendment; to disinvite someone is “worse than not inviting them in the first place,” emphasizing the point that “free speech needs to apply to everyone, or else it doesn’t apply at all.”

Lipson explained that the certain faculty members of the field criticized the Task Force for only bringing in white male voices, but pointed out that the Task Force works hard to bring in conservative voices worth hearing, and having studied WGSS, he standards their point of view.

In the age of Trump’s presidency, Lipson made clear that is important to bring in more voices of immigrants, and other marginalized people, while also “not bringing in Cliff Kincaid’s but a variety of reputable conservatives to hear their perspective as well.”