Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights

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The Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights was set up in 1996 by Donald Downs, a Political Science Professor and other colleagues based at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin in the US. According to an online CV for Downs he was the Secretary, of the Committee between 1996-1999; and President, Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, 2000- present.[1]

According to the same source 'CAFR has participated in several important public issues and individual cases involving free speech, due process, and civil liberty. It has received national recognition, and was the model for the national organization FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).'[1]


CAFAR was founded in 1996 in response to the experience of 'speech codes' at US Universities and in particular at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The former Clinton official Donna Shalala, as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in the late eighties, 'proved a fervent early advocate of campus speech restrictions.'[2] According to the account of John Leo the conservative writers:

Though Shalala occasionally praised free speech, she and her team imposed not only a full-fledged student speech code, later struck down in federal court, but also a faculty code that provoked the first (and so far, only) pro-free-speech campus campaign strong enough to repeal such repressive restrictions. The Wisconsin faculty code was a primitive, totalitarian horror. Professors found themselves under investigation, sometimes for months, without a chance to defend themselves or even to know about the secret proceedings. One female professor said: “It was like being put in prison for no reason. I had no idea what it was that I was supposed to have done.”
A small group of free-speech-minded faculty formed the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights (CAFR). The group asked for help from the Wisconsin chapter of the pro-free-speech National Association of Scholars, which enlisted as speakers such celebrated allies as Alan Dershowitz and National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch.
The First Amendment forces got a lucky break when the university signed a foolish contract with Reebok, in which it received millions of dollars in exchange for the use of the company’s footwear by campus sports teams. The contract included a clause forbidding negative comments on Reebok products by any “University employee, agent or representative.” The clause greatly irritated the anticorporate campus Left, which had usually been lukewarm or indifferent to free-speech concerns, helping convert some of its members to the anti-speech-code side. Later, a strong defense of free speech by a homosexual professor, called a traitor to his identity group for his courage, brought in other campus leftist allies. CAFR was amazed at how quickly many would-be censors backed down when confronted with controversy and threatened lawsuits. Wisconsin rescinded its faculty code—the first university to do so without a court order.[2]

Alleged racism case 2007

In a case of alleged racism by an academic during a Law class at the University of Wisconsin in 2007, CAFAR issued a statement:

When UW Law School professor Leonard Kaplan ended his legal-process class on Feb. 15, there was no sign that he had offended anyone. There were no questions or complaints, and no one approached him afterwards. Yet offend he did, during a discussion about conflicts between culture and the legal system in which he used Hmong immigrants as an example.
A few days later, third-year law student KaShia Moua sent an e-mail citing four 'incredibly offensive and racist' remarks she said Kaplan had made during a '10-minute rant about the Hmong.' Among them: 'Hmong men have no skills other than killing' and 'All second-generation Hmong end up in gangs and other criminal activity.'
Proclaiming that Kaplan 'has violated our rights as students,' Moua called a meeting 'to hold Kaplan and our administration accountable.' Moua did not reveal she was not in the class and received her information secondhand.[3]

Downs was quoted putting the CAFAR position:

'The rush to judgment in this case has been extremely unsettling,' says professor Donald Downs, author of Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus. 'How can you make a valid assessment about whether a line was crossed in this case unless you seriously consider the academic freedom issue? That hasn't been part of the discussion that's come out of the law school.'
The Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, headed by Downs, released a statement over the weekend saying it was 'dismayed' by the law school's public response. 'There is a distinct possibility that the emotion and pressures surrounding this case...will have a chilling effect on honest and good-faith discussion of racial and cultural issues in class and on campus.'
Schweber, who like Downs teaches the First Amendment in the political science department, says several faculty have expressed 'fear of being subjected to the kind of attacks that professor Kaplan has experienced' in discussing controversial topics, especially related to race.[3]

According to Downs, in a comment written in April 2010, the committee has been central to campaigns on Academic freedom opposing student and other reforms:

The Madison campus has witnessed as many free speech and academic freedom controversies as any other campus in the nation over the course of the last two decades. We have grappled with such issues as student and faculty speech codes, anonymous complaint boxes, a Reebok speech code, several conflicts relating to the student fee system (including a 2000 Supreme Court case on this issue, Board of Regents v. Southworth), department speech codes masquerading as “professional conduct codes,” numerous student newspaper controversies, student discipline reform, and individual cases implicating faculty members and staff. Academic freedom and free speech have prevailed in these cases because of the political mobilization of faculty members, often led by a unique independent group, the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights.[4]


According to an early (1996) account The Committee 'is being funded by the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee charitable organization that supports conservative causes.'[5]


According to Donald Downs, CAFR 'served as a model for FIRE after FIRE's co-founder, Harvey Silvergate, witnessed the key role that CAFR played in the process that led to Wisconsin's abolition of its faculty speech code by a vote of the faculty senate in March 1999.[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Donald A. Downs, Basic Vita, posted on the 'Freedom site of Marc Lemire, accessed 02 August 2010
  2. 2.0 2.1 John Leo Free Inquiry? Not on Campus, City Journal, Winter 2007, Pg. 73-83, accessed 3 August 2010
  3. 3.0 3.1 Jason Shepard Prof pays price for causing offense: Sensitivities take precedence over truth and academic freedom The Daily Page, Thursday 03/08/2007, accessed 2 August 2010
  4. Donald S. Downs The University of Wisconsin Counters Garcetti v. Ceballos, April 2010, accessed 2 August 2010
  5. Jennifer A. Galloway 'UW FACULTY DEFEND FREE EXPRESSION' Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI) November 15, 1996, Friday, ALL EDITIONS, SECTION: Front, Pg. 1A
  6. Donald Downs, 'Political Mobilization and resistance to Censorship' in Evan Gertsmann and Metthes J. Streb, Academic Freedom at the Dawn of a New Century, Stanford, California: Stanford University press, 2006, p. 72