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UW-Madison professor imparts knowledge about free speech

March 30, 2012

On Tuesday, April 3, UW-Madison Professor Donald A. Downs will be giving a public lecture on the subject of today’s academic freedom and free speech climate in universities across America.

Downs is a professor of political science, law, and journalism at UW-Madison. The lecture will be focusing on the subject of academic freedom and free speech in regards to last year’s State Capitol protests against Governor Scott Walker.

Free speech is a right that is vital to universities because it provides students with the opportunity to expand their knowledge, encourage the pursuit of elusive truth, and develops critical thinking, according to Downs.

“Good higher education should expose students to all ideas and scholarly thought. This means that one-sidedness, orthodoxy, and discouragement of dissent due to traditional bias or political correctness are harmful to education and short-change students,” Downs wrote in an email.

Although the protests in Madison have become less prominent as they were a year ago, Downs states that he believes that the protests should be less one-sided and that both views of the labor issue in Wisconsin need to be heard, instead of the public mostly hearing about the anti-Walker position.

“If free speech were truly alive and well, all views would be out there more prominently for public consideration. The press has been better in this regard, presenting more sides than just the anti-Walker position. Otherwise, free speech is alive and well, if not as diverse as would be optimal,” Downs wrote.

John Evans, UWRF professor of political science, states that learning and intellectual development in the university setting cannot occur without an environment that allows intellectual freedom of thought and expression.

“Of course free speech is not unlimited. Classrooms and campuses should be places with decorum and civility and debate and discussion should adhere to that. There are also different understandings about what is speech and what is free speech. This is a lot of what Professor Downs will be talking about,” Evans said.

Student Luke Affolter states that although free speech is important on any college campus, it is impossible to exchange ideas if society cannot do so fairly and without fear of retribution. Affolter is not convinced that professors have the right to cancel class and/or encourage students to attend protests, when regarding the Governor Walker protests.

“There are several students who either support Governor Walker and his policies or they just don’t care. Why should they have to miss class because their professor wanted to go to the protest?” Affolter said.

Downs decided to study the issues of academic freedom and free speech as a result of witnessing, throughout his experiences as an undergraduate and at UW-Madison, the consequences that occur when free speech and though is not defended or promoted.

“For example, speech codes at Wisconsin—which we fought against and prevailed—made critical examination of many issues taboo. Free speech is not mana from heaven. It has to be defended and espoused.” Downs said. The lecture is scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m. in the Kinnikinnic Theater of the University Center,