Like many other universities, the University of Wisconsin has experienced its share of free speech and academic battles in the past two decades. Some faculty members have suffered under the reign of a speech code, conservative speakers have sometimes met disruption in the public forum, and the student newspaper, the Badger Herald, has encountered confrontations because of its conservative views. Recently, however, the University has made major strides in protecting intellectual freedom largely because of the concerted efforts of an independent group of faculty members, the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights and their student allies. Founded in 1996 to oppose the direction the University was heading, CAFAR has enjoyed several major successes on the freedom front. Its first success was leading the movement that led to the abolition of the faculty speech code in 1999. Several other successes have followed in the wake of this signal event that made the University of Wisconsin the first university in America to abolish a code on its own volition. The rise and exploits of CAFAR are documented by Donald Downs in his book, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus.

But the problem of intellectual diversity remains. It is for this reason that some members of CAFAR have established the Wisconsin Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy. The purposes of the Center are twofold. First, to promote understanding and critical appreciation of the cardinal principles, institutions, and practices of liberal democratic polities, The Center presents programs dealing with such topics as religious and political freedom; the free market; educational reform; limited government; constitutionalism and the rule of law; the promotion of liberal democracy in the world; the relationship between liberty and equality; and national security and the battle against terrorism. In order to responsibly address the challenges presented to free societies and institutions in the twenty-first century, we must first understand what liberal democracy is about, and what is at stake.

The second purpose of the Center is to promote intellectual diversity on the campus. The Center performs this task by providing speakers, forums, and programs that present different points of view, especially points of view that challenge reigning campus orthodoxies. Thus, the Center promotes intellectual diversity by virtue of the programs it presents and the example it sets.

One of the founders of the Wisconsin Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy is Donald Downs, a CAFAR leader who has played a key role in the Wisconsin free speech and academic freedom movement.

The Center was launched with $67,000 “seed money” from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Portrait of Donald Downs. (Photo by Sarah Morton)
Professor Donald Downs, a founder of the CSLD.
Cover of Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, by Donald Downs.

A History of Actions by CAFAR

The Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights has been involved in several controversies regarding academic freedom, free speech, and due process at the University of Wisconsin and other institutions since its inception in 1996. In today’s academic environment threats to academic freedom emanate from across the political spectrum, calling for due vigilance that only organized and conscientious opposition can counter. We would like to take this opportunity to remind the University community of our presence, and to introduce ourselves to those of you who have not heard about us. We would also like to welcome you to join us in our endeavors.

CAFAR is a non-partisan group of faculty members who teach in a variety of fields. Though we have often worked in conjunction with other university entities (including the University Committee, the administration, student newspapers, and others), we remain staunchly independent of the institution, and have often acted on our own in opposition to university policy and actions that have violated or threatened principles of freedom in the academic setting. Over the years, we have rallied to the support of faculty members, staff, students, and the student newspapers.

Over the years we have taken on several individual cases and led many political efforts on behalf of freedom and fairness on campus. We have had success in defending faculty members, students, and staff whose rights have been violated or threatened

If you have a credible belief that you have experienced a violation of your academic freedom, free speech, or procedural rights, or if you are interested in joining us, please contact one of our officers: Donald Downs (President: dadowns@wisc.edu); Stan Payne (Secretary: sgpayne@wisc.edu); or Jane Hutchison (Treasurer: jchutchi@wisc.edu) For your information, we provide a brief history of CAFAR’s major involvements below.

A Sampling of Individual Cases

CAFAR’s original mission has been to provide legal and moral support to individuals of the university community who raise plausible claims that their rights have been violated by a university body. We have taken on several individual cases over the years, usually enjoying success. A list of our most prominent cases includes:

  • In 1997, CAFAR came to the defense of a 74-year-old professor who was taken out of class, questioned in the presence of an armed guard, and charged with violating the then-existing faculty speech code. The University eventually dropped its major charges.
  • In 1998, CAFAR contacted the chair of a department head after he had issued an order prohibiting a faculty member from placing certain articles on his/her bulletin board that discussed certain scientific matters that a colleague found offensive. The department rescinded the order.
  • From 1997 to 1999, CAFAR provided legal assistance to a researcher who was denied all access to her computer files, which contained virtually all the data relevant to her research. The University also refused to renew her contract. Her claims included due process, libel, sexual harassment, and the loss of professional identity. The University eventually prevailed in this case.
  • In 1997 CAFAR provided financial and legal support to the class action case of University personnel who had been demoted due to a new interpretation of state law involving qualifications. In this case, CAFAR and the University were in agreement that the employees’ equal protection rights had been violated.
  • From the early 2000’s to the present, CAFAR has legally and politically supported the claims of a tenured UW-Superior professor who was terminated by the Board of Regents on the basis of what the faculty senates in the UW System proclaimed improper procedures and standards. In this matter, CAFAR has interacted with the University Committee, the Faculty Senate, and representatives the American Federation of Teachers. We also sought to intervene in the professor’s legal case, but were denied by the court. The case is still pending.
  • In 2002-2004, CAFAR acted on behalf of a graduate student whose school sanctioned him without due process on the basis of an overly broad school-wide professional conduct code. After meeting with CAFAR representatives, the school rescinded the problematic sections of the code and lowered the sanction against the student to a reprimand, which did not appear on the student’s record.
  • In 2006, CAFAR supported a professor whose career was threatened because of remarks he made in class that were germane to the subject matter of the course. A CAFAR representative met with the Chancellor, and our group wrote an op-ed in the State Journal about the case. The matter was resolved in a non-optimal manner, but in a manner acceptable to the professor.
  • In 2011 CAFAR assisted a professor who was falsely accused of misconduct by a graduate student. The case was dropped.
  • In 2011-12, CAFAR has provided legal assistance to a professor at UW-River Falls who has been terminated by his department for political reasons. The professor found a better job and the non-renewal was dropped from his record.

Political Activity

CAFAR has also entered the political fray on campus to provide support for individuals and groups involved in civil liberty and free speech battles, and to present its own position in prominent issues. Examples include:

  • CAFAR was the major group that led the opposition to the faculty speech code, which was adopted by the Faculty Senate in 1988. Initiated in 1996, the project led to the Faculty Senate’s abolition of the faculty speech code in the classroom in 1999. After this action, CAFAR helped prevent questionable due process reforms from being adopted in FP&P.
  • In the fall of 2000, CAFAR led a resistance movement that led to the dismantling of a university-wide anonymous complaint system (MARC, or “Make a Respectful Campus”), replete with boxes for informants to deposit complaints. The system had Orwellian implications that had to be countered. In the fall of 2007, CAFAR intervened again to reform an on-line offshoot of the MARC program, “Think Respect.” Working with us, the administration reform Think Respect to be in conformity with basic civil liberty principles.
  • In the fall of 2000, the editor of the Badger Herald editorial page asked if the CAFAR committee was willing to support him after he had received threats from angry student groups over articles he had published dealing with controversial issues. CAFAR told the editor that it would stand by him 100%, giving him even more courage to continue publishing important, controversial articles.
  • The actions of fall 2000 set the stage for the Herald’s and CAFAR’s reaction to the tumult caused by the Herald’s publication of David Horowitz’s article against reparations for slavery in March 2001. After making the decision to stand up for its First Amendment right to publish what it sees fit, the Herald’s editor-in-chief came to CAFAR and asked for support and advice. CAFAR provided unqualified support, offering advice on how to proceed. CAFAR then placed an ad in both student papers defending the Herald. The Herald won a national reputation for standing strong in the face of forces bent on censorship and preventing a true diversity of discourse. Its editorial on this matter also won major awards.
  • In the fall of 2002, CAFAR spearheaded a response to the development of a new type of student speech code on campus, codes based on “professional conduct.” Working with the administration and a school that had adopted such a measure, CAFAR succeeded in revising the codes to be consistent with academic freedom and due process principles.
  • In 2006–7, CAFAR assisted a student leader in persuading the Dorm Council to amend its dorm conduct code to protect freedom of speech. The new code is consistent with the ACLU’s model harassment code.
  • In 2010, CAFAR president Donald Downs led the Faculty Senate in amending Faculty Policies and Procedures (Chapter 8) to explicitly define and protect academic freedom. The amendment also provided explicit protection to faculty members who criticize (publicly or privately) University policies, procedures, and actions. The amendments were designed to provide protection in the wake of a Supreme Court case that withdrew such protection (Garcetti v. Ceballos).
  • In 2013, CAFAR has been working with the national Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Regents to revise Regents Policy 14-6, which recommends that UW campuses adopt policies consistent with the old student speech code that was declared unconstitutional by a federal court in 1991. As of September, the Regents had drafted a new version of 14-6 that is consistent with First Amendment principles.
  • In 2013, Donald Downs joined FIRE and six other professors nation-wide to protest the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed “blue print” for harassment, which represents a severe attack on freedom of thought on campus. This matter is still pending.

CAFAR has also been in constant contact with other civil liberty campus groups around the country, including the campus ACLU at Brown, and the nationally-oriented group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). The leading academic freedom and campus rights organization in the country, FIRE was established in 1999 and was partly inspired by CAFAR’s victory over the faculty speech code at Wisconsin that year. We are working to make ourselves part of a national movement. In a March 24 article on campus newspapers’ reactions to the Horowitz controversy, National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch compared the free speech environment at Wisconsin to that at Berkeley: “The Herald’s community is not the same as the Daily Cal’s community. At Wisconsin, an energetic free-speech faction has emerged in the last few years. In 1999, the Wisconsin faculty rose up to abolish their own speech code, an apparently unprecedented event in American academe. When the Badger Herald came under fire this month, an aggressive free-speech group, called the Faculty Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, immediately offered the paper its full support. Hernandez and The Daily Cal, by contrast, dangled in the wind.”