Free Speech and Liberal Education

A Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance

Free Speech and Liberal Education: A Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance

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Is Free Speech Still Alive on the American College Campus?  September 10, 2020 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM EDT
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Join Donald A. Downs, author of Free Speech and Liberal Education: A Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance, Facebook’s Katie Harbath, Cato Books editor Jason Kuznicki, and Reason Magazine senior editor Robby Soave for a #CatoBooks conversation about how attitudes toward free speech have evolved on college campuses and what the future holds for academic freedom and liberal education.

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About the Book

The status of free speech and academic freedom in the nation’s colleges and universities has become an explosive issue. Reports of disruptions and dis‐​invitations of speakers and a host of new speech‐​inhibiting policies instituted by campus bureaucracies are now commonplace.

Critics claim that these actions and measures have smothered the open and honest discourse inside and outside of the classroom that is so necessary for a meaningful and vibrant education to take place. Others consider the fears of crisis overblown, discerning the harms as less extensive in the vast domain of higher education than critics acknowledge.

Drawing on his extensive research, teaching, and practical experience as a free speech and academic freedom leader at the University of Wisconsin‐​Madison and nation‐​wide, Donald A. Downs portrays the university as an “intellectual polis” in which free and honest academic discourse should pervade the campus. His unique approach addresses the experiential, empirical, strategic, and philosophical dimensions at stake.

Free Speech and Liberal Education: A Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance dissects the nature, extent, and causes of the speech suppression that exists, emphasizing the need for intellectual diversity and how repression often co‐​exists with counter‐​forces that need to be energized and mobilized in what Downs portrays as the “embattled” status of academic free speech; the character of the harms the new policies and actions pose to liberal education; broader “structural and societal threats to academic freedom; how to mobilize to protect campus freedom using resources inside and outside of the campus; and, most importantly, why robust free speech and academic freedom are so important to both liberal education and the prospects of liberal democracy.

About the Author

Donald Downs is the Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science Emeritus and affiliate professor of law and journalism emeritus at the University of Wisconsin‐​Madison. He has won numerous local and national awards for scholarship, teaching, and activism in support of free speech and academic freedom. His scholarship has dealt with a wide range of issues, including academic freedom and free speech; American politics; political and legal thought and movements; citizenship; campus politics; domestic violence, psychiatry, and the criminal law; and the relationship among the military, the university, and civic education. His most recent books are Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non‐​Military Students (Cambridge University Press, 2012), coauthored with Ilia Murtazashvili; and The Value and Limits of Academic Speech: Philosophical, Political, and Legal Perspectives (Routledge, 2018), coedited with Chris W. Surprenant.

Praise for Free Speech and Liberal Education

“As a longtime law professor and American Civil Liberties Union leader, I have intensely studied the issues surrounding free speech and higher education. But in Free Speech and Liberal Education, Donald Downs has provided me with invaluable, thought‐​provoking new insights … In this engaging work, Downs also presents in‐​depth empirical analysis of the nature and extent of the threats to intellectual freedom on campus and in our society at large, as well as practical advice for constructive action gleaned from his extensive leadership in campus free speech politics. He balances due concern with appropriate hope.”

—NADINE STROSSEN, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law, New York Law School; former president of the American Civil Liberties Union; and author of HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship


“Deeply scholarly yet perfectly readable, this is the most comprehensive book to date about free speech on campus and an absolute must read for anyone who cares about the topic. The book is a triumph, drawn from the life and experience of a true hero of campus freedom of speech and academic freedom.”

—GREG LUKIANOFF, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)


“For decades, Donald Downs has fought in the trenches as one of our most compelling voices for freedom of inquiry and expression, on and off campus. In Free Speech and Liberal Education, he brings a lifetime of wisdom and passion to the task of understanding the spread of intolerance in American academic life—and a wealth of practical and humane suggestions for righting the ship…. As I turned the pages of Free Speech and Liberal Education, I kept thinking, ‘This is the book I’ve been waiting for.’”

—JONATHAN RAUCH, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, and author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought