A Tactic I Hope Republicans Will Rethink:
Using the Open Records Law to Intimidate Critics

Here’s the headline: the Wisconsin Republican Party has issued an Open Records Law request for access to my emails since January 1 in response to a blog entry I posted on March 15 concerning the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in influencing recent legislation in this state and across the country. I find this a disturbing development, and hope readers will bear with me as I explain the strange circumstances in which I find myself as a result.

 

Bill Cronon Posts His First-Ever Blog Entry

Last week was quite a roller coaster for me.  I spent the weekend of March 12-13 drafting an op-ed for the New York Times (published on March 22, and available at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/opinion/22cronon.html) about the several ways in which I believe that Scott Walker and the current leadership of the Republican Party in Wisconsin have departed not just from the longstanding culture of civility and good government in this state, but in fact from important traditions of their own party. In the course of writing that op-ed, I did some research trying to figure out where the current wave of conservative legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere might be coming from.

 

As a result, last Tuesday night, March 15, I launched my first-ever entry for a blog I had long been planning on the theme of “Scholar as Citizen,” about how thoughtful scholarship can contribute to better understandings of issues and debates in the public realm. In my first blog entry, I published a study guide exploring the question “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?” I by no means had all the answers to this question, but I thought I had found enough useful leads that it was worth sharing them to help others investigate the American Legislative Exchange Council further. So I posted the link for the blog on Facebook and Twitter, sat back, and hoped that viral communication would bring the blog to people who might find it useful.

 

My little ALEC study guide succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  Within two days, the blog had received over half a million hits, had been read by tens of thousands of people, had been linked by newspapers all over the United States, and had been visited by people from more than two dozen foreign countries. Many readers expressed considerable interest in the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and said they were grateful for the guidance I had tried to provide for people wishing to learn more about it. (A smaller number of readers were much more hostile, and you can read their comments on the blog.)

 

All this was welcome, and I’m greatly heartened by the thought that an organization that has exercised such extraordinary but almost invisible influence over American political life for the past forty years may finally start to receive more of the scrutiny that its far-reaching activities deserve.

 

The Wisconsin Republican Party Expresses Its Displeasure

What I did not anticipate—though I guess I should have seen it coming, given everything else that has happened in Wisconsin over the past couple months—was the communication that the University of Wisconsin-Madison received on Thursday afternoon, March 17—less than two days after I posted my blog—formally requesting under the state’s Open Records Law copies of all emails sent from or received by my University of Wisconsin—Madison email address pertaining to matters raised in my blog. (The acronym in many other states and in the Federal government for the laws under which such a request is usually made is “FOIA,” named for the federal Freedom of Information Act.  You can read the text of the Wisconsin Open Records Law here: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/stat0019.pdf,
and learn more about its application here:
http://www.doj.state.wi.us/dls/OMPR/2010OMCG-PRO/2010_OML_Compliance_Guide.pdf

 

Remarkably, the request was sent to the university’s legal office by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, with no effort to obscure the political motivations behind it.  Here’s what Mr. Thompson sent to the University’s attorneys:

 

******************************************

From: Stephan Thompson [mailto:SThompson@wisgop.org]
Sent: Thursday, March 17, 2011 2:37 PM
To: Dowling, John
Subject: Open Records Request

Dear Mr. Dowling,

Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:

Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.

We are making this request under Chapter 19.32 of the Wisconsin state statutes, through the Open Records law. Specifically, we would like to cite the following section of Wis. Stat. 19.32 (2) that defines a public record as “anything recorded or preserved that has been created or is being kept by the agency. This includes tapes, films, charts, photographs, computer printouts, etc.”

Thank you for your prompt attention, and please make us aware of any costs in advance of preparation of this request.

Sincerely,

Stephan Thompson

Republican Party of Wisconsin

608-257-4765

******************************************

(I apologize again for the length of this blog posting; if you don’t have time to read it all, feel free to skip to the final three sections, which try to summarize what’s at stake in this request.)

 

Why Did the Republican Party Make This Request?

Under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, anyone has the right to request access to the state’s public records, and can do so without either identifying themselves or stating the reasons for their interest in those records. But since Mr. Thompson made no effort to hide his identity or his affiliation with the Republican Party, since his request came so soon after my ALEC study guide was published, and since he provided search terms to identify the particular emails that most interested him, it’s not too hard to connect the dots to figure out what this request is all about.

 

Let’s subject Mr. Thompson’s email to some textual analysis. That is, after all, what we historians do: we read documents and try to interpret their meanings.

 

The timing of Mr. Thompson’s request surely means that it is a response to my blog posting about the American Legislative Exchange Council, since I have never before been the subject of an Open Records request, and nothing in my prior professional life has ever attracted this kind of attention from the Republican Party. It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to infer that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues aren’t particularly eager to have a state university professor asking awkward questions about the dealings of state Republicans with the American Legislative Exchange Council. This open records request apparently seemed to Mr. Thompson to be a good way to discourage me from sticking my nose in places he doesn’t think it belongs.

 

I confess that I’m surprised to find myself in this strange position, since (as I said in my earlier blog post) my professional interest as a historian has always been to research and understand the full spectrum of American political opinion. I often spend as much time defending Republican and conservative points of view to my liberal friends as vice versa.  (For what it’s worth, I have never belonged to either party.) But Mr. Thompson obviously read my blog post as an all-out attack on the interests of his party, and his open records request seems designed to give him what he hopes will be ammunition he can use to embarrass, undermine, and ultimately silence me.

 

One obvious conclusion I draw is that my study guide about the role of ALEC in Wisconsin politics must come pretty close to hitting a bull’s-eye.  Why else would the Republican Party of Wisconsin feel the need to single out a lone university professor for such uncomfortable attention?

 

What Is the Republican Party Hoping to Find in My Emails?

But let’s read the request more carefully.  How does Mr. Thompson think he can hurt me with an open records request seeking access to my emails since January 1, 2011?

 

One answer is that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has explicit policies about appropriate use of its email accounts. In general, students and faculty members are only supposed to use their state email addresses for communications clearly related to the educational mission of the university.

 

Much more important, there is an explicit prohibition against individuals using state email addresses for partisan political purposes.  Here’s the crucial sentence: “University employees may not use these resources to support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum.” (You can read these policies for yourself at http://www.cio.wisc.edu/policies/appropriateuse.aspx.)

 

I’d be willing to bet quite a lot of money that Mr. Thompson and the State Republican Party are hoping that I’ve been violating this policy so they can use my own emails to prove that I’m a liberal activist who is using my state email account to engage in illegal lobbying and efforts to influence elections.  By releasing emails to demonstrate this, they’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic.

 

What Story Does the Republican Party Hope to Tell Using My Emails?

The narrative they would like to spin about me seems pretty clear from the search terms they’ve included in their open records request.  For instance, they name eleven politicians in that request.  Three of these–Governor Scott Walker; Speaker of the Assembly Jeff Fitzgerald; and his brother, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald—are the Republican leaders who have engineered and led the policies that have produced so much upset in the State of Wisconsin over the past two months. They would thus likely be lightning rods for any inappropriately partisan emails one might be tempted to send as a state employee using a state email account.

 

But the other eight Republican legislators named in Mr. Thompson’s open records request are probably even more important: Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, and Mary Lazich.  Why seek Bill Cronon’s emails relating to these individuals?  Answer: because they’re the eight Republicans currently targeted by petition campaigns seeking to hold early recall elections in response to recent legislation.

 

It’s these eight names, in combination with a search for emails containing the words “Republican” and “recall,” that Mr. Thompson is hoping he can use to prove that Bill Cronon has been engaging in illegal use of state emails to lobby for recall elections designed to defeat Republicans who voted for the Governor’s Budget Repair Bill. (One might also infer from his request that a blog post about the influence of ALEC on Wisconsin politics might somehow have an impact on those recall elections—a thought that wasn’t much on my mind when I put together my ALEC study guide, but that seems more intriguing now that we see how forcefully the Republican Party has responded.)

 

In this context, the remaining search terms are almost certainly intended to supply a key additional element in a narrative designed to undermine a professorial critic not only for misusing state email resources, but for being a puppet of the public employee unions which Mr. Thompson and his Republican allies would like the wider public to believe are chiefly responsible for criticisms of their policies.  The request for emails containing the search phrases “AFSCME” and “WEAC” are of course seeking emails to or from or relating to the two largest public employee unions in Wisconsin. Marty Beil and Mary Bell—also named in Mr. Thompson’s request—are the leaders of those two organizations. Emails containing the words “rally,” “union,” and “collective bargaining” would just be the icing on the cake to show that I’m a wild-eyed union ideologue completely out of touch with the true interests of the citizens and taxpayers of Wisconsin.

 

I suspect this is the story Mr. Thompson would like to be able to tell about me if his open records request yields the pay dirt he imagines he will find in my emails.

 

Should Political Parties Use the Open Records Law to Try to Silence Their Critics?

If I’m right that this is the kind of story Mr. Thompson hopes to be able to tell about me, what should the rest of us think about that story and his desire to tell it?

 

My most important observation is that I find it simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state’s Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity. I’m offended by this not just because it’s yet another abuse of law and procedure that has seemingly become standard operating procedure for the state’s Republican Party under Governor Walker, but because it’s such an obvious assault on academic freedom at a great research university that helped invent the concept of academic freedom way back in 1894.  I’ll return to that 1894 story at the end of this blog entry.

 

FOIA: A Precious Asset of Democracy in the United States

Having expressed my outrage, though, I can’t in good faith just rail against Wisconsin’s admirably strong Open Records Law or the legal traditions surrounding our nation’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  First signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act is a bastion of American democracy, making it possible for citizens to scrutinize the actions of their government and elected officials in ways that are possible in few other nations on earth.  FOIA is a precious political heritage of the United States, and I would not want to argue that public universities should enjoy a blanket exemption from its requirements.  Over and over again, FOIA and its state-level statutory analogs have enabled journalists, historians, and other scholars to research and analyze governmental activities that would otherwise be completely invisible to ordinary citizens.

 

When should FOIA and Wisconsin’s Open Records Law apply to universities?

 

Answer: When there is good reason to believe that wrongdoing has occurred.  When formal academic governance proceedings are making important decisions that the public has a right to know about.  When teachers engage in abusive relationships with their students.  When the documents being requested have to do with official university business. And so on.

 

When should we be more cautious about applying such laws to universities?

 

Answer: When FOIA is used to harass individual faculty members for asking awkward questions, researching unpopular topics, making uncomfortable arguments, or pursuing lines of inquiry that powerful people would prefer to suppress.  If that happens, FOIA and the Open Records Law can too easily become tools for silencing legitimate intellectual inquiries and voices of dissent—whether these emanate from the left or the right or (as in my case) the center. It is precisely this fear of intellectual inquiry being stifled by the abuse of state power that has long led scholars and scientists to cherish the phrase “academic freedom” as passionately as most Americans cherish such phrases as “free speech” and “the First Amendment.”

 

It is chilling indeed to think that the Republican Party of my state has asked to have access to the emails of a lone professor in the hope of finding messages they can use to attack and discredit that professor. It makes me wonder if they have given even the slightest thought to what would happen to the reputation of this state and of its universities if they were to succeed in such an effort.

 

It also makes me wonder how a party so passionate in its commitment to liberty and to protecting citizens from abuses of state power can justify resorting to this particular exercise of state power with the goal of trying to silence a critic of its own conduct.

 

What Does Bill Cronon Have to Hide?

By now, you’re probably beginning to wonder “What does Bill Cronon have to hide?”  That is, of course, one of the predictable narrative elements of the drama that Mr. Thompson and his party have tried to set in motion by making their request.  If the victim of the request begins to squirm and tries to prevent release of the requested emails, we can all be forgiven for beginning to think they must contain something pretty interesting for the victim to make such a fuss about them.

 

That’s how these kinds of stories work: even if they turn up nothing at all, they can damage the victim simply by implying that he might have something to hide.

 

So let me quickly say that my outrage at Mr. Thompson’s request does not derive from fear—though I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous about the prospect of having the Republican Party and its allies combing through my private and professional life in an effort to hurt or discredit me.  I am, after all, a chaired, tenured professor at one of the greatest research universities in the world—an institution that has a proud tradition of defending academic freedom from precisely the kinds of attacks that Mr. Thompson is trying to launch.

 

I’m here in Wisconsin because I love this state with all my heart, and I hope disinterested readers will recognize that the questions I’ve asked are a reflection not of partisanship but of a citizen’s love for his state and its traditions—and a historian’s fascination for the story of how American politics works.  I don’t think it would be easy for Republican state officials to fire me—and even if they did succeed in hounding me to resign, I have no doubt that I could easily get a job at another university where I would actually earn a lot more money.  (I’m very far from being one of those mythical Wisconsin workers who is earning lots more money by virtue of being a public employee; I could almost certainly increase my salary a great deal by moving to a private university in another state.)

 

Is It Naïve to Believe That the Best Defense is … the Truth?

But there’s a much more important reason I feel far less fear than anger at Mr. Thompson’s open records request, which is simply this: I haven’t actually done anything wrong.

 

Ever since moving to Wisconsin from Yale in the early 1990s, I have been careful to maintain a separation between my public @wisc.edu email address and my personal email address.  I use the latter for all communications with family members and friends, and I use it too for any activities of mine that might be construed as political rather than scholarly (though the boundaries between these two categories is harder to draw for a scholar of the modern United States than non-scholars might imagine).  I have always owned my own computers, because I haven’t wanted to worry about whether my personal and professional emails are mingling on a state-owned machine in ways that would violate Wisconsin’s rules about using state property for personal or political communication.

 

The irony goes deeper still.  As any careful reader of my blog about ALEC will probably have noticed—though I get the feeling that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues may not be such careful readers—I did not raise the questions I did about ALEC from a partisan point of view.  Quite the contrary.  I tried to write with real respect about the history of the conservative movement in the United States, because I genuinely do respect that movement and believe it has made many important contributions to our political life. Although I do have serious criticisms of the role ALEC has played in our politics, my concerns have to do with threats to core American notions of due process and transparent governance. I worked hard to avoid partisan criticism, enough so that I’m pretty sure many readers to my left thought that I wasn’t nearly critical enough in what I wrote.

 

But all of this seems to have been lost on Mr. Thompson and the Wisconsin Republican Party.  They’re eager to see my emails in the hope that they might punish and silence me for what I wrote.

 

I should add that even if I had written from either the left or the right end of the political spectrum, I still think we should oppose this kind of politically motivated intrusion on the intellectual life of universities. If he had directed the same kind of inquiry against a colleague who was more liberal or conservative in their political views than I am, it would be just as objectionable.

 

Here, alas, there are cautionary historical precedents that we would all do well to remember.

 

In the op-ed I published in the New York Times on March 22, I drew a carefully delimited analogy between what is happening in Wisconsin today and the partisan turmoil that Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy worked so hard to create in the early 1950s. McCarthy, of course, thought nothing of trying to have university faculty members fired from their jobs because he believed they held objectionable political views—and many were indeed fired as a result. The kind of intervention happening in this case isn’t so overt: Mr. Thompson hasn’t yet issued a demand for me to be disciplined or fired. But it’s hard not to draw an analogy between this effort to seek of evidence of wrongdoing on my part (because I asked awkward but legitimate questions about an organization with close ties to the Republican Party) and the legal and professional consequences that might follow the discovery of such evidence.

 

Joe McCarthy was a master of using allegation and innuendo to tar the reputations of those he “investigated,” and I would argue that we should all be very firm in defending academic freedom across the entire political spectrum against that kind of political abuse. The fact that the Open Records Law is now available as a potential tool for undermining one’s enemies doesn’t make the resulting “investigations” any less sinister in their potentially chilling effects for the intellectual life of universities.

 

If There’s Nothing to Hide, Why Not Just Release These Emails?

If, as I believe, emails flagged by Mr. Thompson’s open records request contain nothing that represents an abuse of a state email account, and no politically inappropriate activities by myself as a state employee, why not just release them?

 

My answer is that records administrators and courts in Wisconsin are asked to perform a “balancing test” when deciding whether the very strong presumption in favor of full disclosure overrides other public policy considerations. Although legal precedents in Wisconsin insist that there can be no non-statutory blanket exclusions from the public records law, I’d like to argue that there are good public policy reasons why not even the Wisconsin Republican Party should seek to intrude for political reasons on the professional and personal communications of a University of Wisconsin faculty member.

 

Let me offer just a few concrete examples.

 

A number of the emails caught in the net of Mr. Thompson’s open records request are messages between myself and my students. All thus fall within the purview of the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA, sometimes known as the “Buckley Amendment,” named for its author Senator James Buckley—the brother of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley). The Buckley Amendment makes it illegal for colleges or universities to release student records without the permission of those students, and is thus in direct conflict with the Wisconsin Open Records Law and Mr. Thompson’s request on behalf of the Wisconsin Republican Party. I don’t know whether Mr. Thompson intended his request to generate a wholesale release of student records, but I myself think that doing so would represent a dangerous intrusion on student privacy. I’m pretty sure the law supports me in this view. If you’d like to review the terms of FERPA, see
http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html
and
http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_04/34cfr99_04.html

 

Many more of the emails that would be released under this open records request are communications with colleagues of mine at other institutions about various matters that have nothing whatsoever to do with Wisconsin politics or the official business of the University of Wisconsin-Madison—but they do involve academic work that typically assumes a significant degree of privacy and confidentiality. (Many happen to include one or more of the requested search terms because these are widely used words in the English language—for instance, a writer recalling the role of the Union Army in the post-Civil War electoral success of the Republican Party would get caught by this search three times over.) The emails include, for instance, conversations with authors and editors about book manuscripts, and also the deliberations of two professional boards on which I sit, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and the American Historical Association (AHA), the latter of which I now serve as President-Elect. Online email exchanges among members of these boards are expected to be confidential, so that all of us are admonished not to share each other’s emails lest doing so discourage colleagues from being candid in sharing their views.

 

Even though it’s not part of official university business, I have always used my University of Wisconsin-Madison email address in professional communications of this kind, because I’m proud to declare my association with this university and this state. Neither I nor my academic correspondents imagined that my doing so might put the confidentiality of our communications at risk, and I would very much regret having to announce to the world that colleagues can no longer communicate with me using my UW-Madison email address for fear that politically motivated use of the Public Records Law might intrude on what are meant to be confidential communications. If these discussions involved something unethical or illegal, then of course a FOIA request might be appropriate—though so too would a court-ordered subpoena, which has much greater legal power to intrude on private communications.

 

But a political fishing expedition with the purpose of causing embarrassment to correspondents seems sure to have a severe chilling effect that could only undermine the university’s longstanding reputation for defending academic freedom.

 

Sifting and Winnowing

Why should anyone not at the university care about all this?

 

Most of my professional colleagues will instantly recognize this request for access to a professor’s emails as a potential threat to academic freedom: an effort by a powerful political group—the Republican Party of my own state, no less—to seek weapons they can use against me. Most of us would feel at least a little nervous about giving someone carte blanche to rummage through our online communications, and in the academic world this raises special concerns because such inquiries have often in the past been used to suppress unpopular ideas.

 

In fact, one of the most celebrated moments in the history of American academic freedom happened right here at the University of Wisconsin in 1894. In July of that year, a member of the UW Board of Regents named Oliver E. Wells wrote a letter to The Nation magazine entitled “The College Anarchist.” In it, he accused UW Professor Richard Ely, one of the nation’s leading economists, of being an anarchist and socialist for his work exploring the positive roles that labor unions could play in the American economy. Wells sought to have Ely fired from his UW faculty position, and this prompted the appointment of a special committee of the Board of Regents to investigate Wells’ allegations. The result was a report that ended with one of the most ringing endorsements of academic freedom ever made in the United States, now emblazoned on a bronze tablet by the front door of UW-Madison’s Bascom Hall:

 

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

 

If you’d like to learn more about this famous story, there are good accounts at the following links:

http://www.wisconsinstories.org/2002season/school/closer_look.cfm
http://www.uwp.edu/news/perspective/winter9899/sifting.pdf
http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/wireader/Contents/Sifting.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_T._Ely

 

http://www.secfac.wisc.edu/SiftAndWinnow.htm

 

Why Do I Hope the Republican Party Might Withdraw This Request?

Let me conclude by repeating that I have nothing to hide in the emails I have sent and received using my UW-Madison email account, but I think we will all lose if the Republican Party of Wisconsin insists on pursuing the reckless course of action that has prompted it to issue this Open Records Law request. If the University of Wisconsin-Madison is forced to turn over my emails in response to this request, here are some of the things that are put at risk:

 

1) Questions will inevitably be asked about whether the University and the State of Wisconsin have struck a proper balance between the unquestioned value of open records for the democratic oversight of formal governmental processes and the rights of privacy for students and faculty members at a research university to pursue lines of inquiry even if they offend powerful political interests.

 

2) Anyone using email to communicate with University of Wisconsin professors will likely have second thoughts about whether they can afford to be candid and honest in such emails.

 

3) When a faculty member like myself becomes an officer of a major scholarly organization, questions may be raised about whether it is wise or safe to use UW-Madison email addresses for communications relating to that organization.

 

4) If such requests were to become a common feature of life at UW-Madison, it would likely become much harder for the university to recruit the best professors in the country to join its faculty—and it’s easy to imagine the most marketable professors leaving our campus if subjected to this kind of harassment.

 

Faculty members like me can probably avoid many of these problems by never using their UW email addresses for any of their professional communications, even with their own students…but that in itself would seem to be a most unfortunate outcome of the Republican Party’s reckless action.  I have always felt honored to use my @wisc.edu address when communicating with colleagues as a way to declare the delight and privilege I feel being a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Ceasing that practice, or adding a note to all my emails warning colleagues that they must always be cautious when they write me lest political inquiries intrude upon our private communications: I would feel a deep sense of regret about such an outcome and the chilling effect it would have on virtually all university communications.

 

Abusing Essential Tools of Democracy

I want to close by repeating that I support the Open Records Law and the freedom of information traditions of the United States. They are precious guardians of our democratic liberties.

 

But this particular request demonstrates that they also have the potential to be abused in ways that discourage dissent and undermine democracy.

 

Here, it’s not too much of a stretch to draw an analogy to the abuse of the subpoena power that was one of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s most dangerous tactics during the 1950s. The subpoena power too is crucial to our democracy: the criminal justice system could not work without the power to compel witnesses to testify, and Congress needs a similar power to compel testimony if its deliberations are to be properly informed. As with open records, our democracy would be far less effective if the subpoena power did not exist.  The same can be said of the Fifth Amendment, which exists to protect individuals from having to give self-incriminating testimony in response to the subpoena power—but McCarthy was skilled at undermining that bulwark of American liberty as well.

 

When such tools are turned toward purely partisan ends, and when they are used with the express purpose of intimidating or punishing those with whom powerful people disagree, then precious institutions of democracy are deployed to subvert the very liberties we all cherish. It is for this reason that I have spent so much time trying to articulate why I don’t believe the Wisconsin Republican Party should be invoking the Open Records Law to single me out for scrutiny—and implicitly for punishment—in this way.

 

The consequences of this highly politicized Open Records Law request, in other words, in which one of Wisconsin’s two great political parties seeks to punish a faculty member at its state university by seeking access to that professor’s emails, seem potentially so damaging to the University, the State, and even to the Republican Party itself that my idealistic self hopes even Mr. Thompson and his Republican colleagues will see the dangers in the tactic they have deployed.

 

This is very different from asking an elected official or a government agency to turn over emails relating to their formal duties and their formal exercise of state power.  It asks a university professor to turn over personal emails relating to the day-to-day life of an intellectual community in its “sifting and winnowing” in pursuit of truth. This would not happen at private universities like Harvard or Stanford, and I would like to think it shouldn’t happen at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has played a more central role in defining and defending academic freedom than most other institutions in the United States.

 

If the University cannot avoid turning over my emails, then so be it. But I truly do hope that wiser heads in the Republican Party will prevail, and that this Open Records Law request will be seen for what it is: an ill-advised political intervention into traditions of academic freedom that are among the proudest legacies of this state.

 

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646 Responses to “Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom”

  • Rob:

    Faculty at public universities should not necessarily be considered to be “public employees”. UW-Madison, despite being a “public” university, only receives about one-third of its funding from taxpayers. Thus, it is hard to justify considering emails sent or received on the university’s e-mail system to be “public records”. My view is that the university has no duty to even respond to this sort of politically motivated open records request. The public really has no right to know what university faculty are doing on “company” time.

    If they want to have that right, they will need to agree to raise their taxes to a level that is sufficient to provide the University of Wisconsin with at least 50% of its funding.

  • David A Blumenthal:

    Why be so fearful? It is niot a given you broke any law, just do your job, and send emails against your EMPLOYER from a private account. I see, even the master weaselator paul krugman weighs in with his [...] bs.

  • Nick:

    Professor Cronon,

    Your handling of this situation is incredibly admirable. I cannot sift through the 600+ comments already posted here, but Dr. Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Labs (among other climate scientists such as Michael Mann of Penn St.) have been dealing with politically motivated FOI requests for years now. I think you would benefit from (historically and personally) looking into this further. They too are just pursuing truths that some powerful interests do not necessarily want discovered.]

    Be well,
    Nick

  • Arland Baee:

    To Whom it May Concern:

    What I recognize as the primary concern in this request for e-mails is not the request itself but that the request is limited to a particular set of political writings. A request for information which is so obviously political in nature and limited to one political spectrum will guarantee a skewed result. The information requested will certainly show a particular bias because the request itself is biased. This is tantamount to a criminal investigator ignoring any evidence which doesn’t support their conclusions.

    If these politicians were truly interested in uncovering bias, they would need to review all the e-mails, not just those which will certainly show a bias from a historians point of view, considering his OpEd.

    It seems to me that Republicans have already assigned guilt to Mr. Cronan and they don’t want any evidence that doesn’t support that assignation.

    I find these actions reprehensible.

    Mr. Cronan, I suggest having an agreed upon neutral third party review all of your e-mails.

    Thank you for your service,

    AB

  • Abolitionist:

    Meet fire w/ fire buddy. Everyone loves a fighter. Ignore the details and go for the throat. That’s what they are going to do to you! The Republicans are a Union for the Rich which is why I find it laughable that they attack unions. We are a few crises away from dealing with Nazi’s in the US. Everyone better bare arms.

  • the buckaroo:

    …their problem lies in the fact that Lockian liberalism is the basis for the American consensus. The Conservative Brotherhood is thus in a permanent identity crisis…without a distinctive idiom or vision.

    Counter-intellectualism is their marquis de fraud.

  • Jack:

    As one intimately familiar with e-mail usage laws as they pertain to state-owned property, anything created while on state time and/or state-owned equipment is subject–and rightly so–to possible public scrutiny via a public records request. As a state employee, I’m certain you were informed as to how those–time and assets–were to properly, i.e. lawfully, deployed prior to, and possibly during, your hiring and subsequent university career. If the op-ed was not done either on university time and/or on university-owned equipment, there are no concerns. On the other hand, should you have done so then your records are lawfully subject to disclosure regardless of whether or not the request stems from a political party operative or alternately, an ordinary (read non-politically affiliated) citizen.

    Unfortunately, given the widespread media coverage of events in Madison, a number of the actions seemingly taken by, for example, public school teachers who were “sick”, and (apparently) some medical staff from the university hospital, had the effect of focusing a great deal of public scrutiny on matters in Madison. As such, a request for public records should have been easily anticipated as being forthcoming. More fundamentally, however, even absent the questionable and highly-visible activities above, rules and procedures–of which you are presumably familiar–would suggest that producing any political statement/opinion is properly the province of one’s personal time and personal equipment, i.e. computer, e-mail.

  • Brian:

    Prof. Cronon, you say you “haven’t actually done anything wrong.” (and I’ve no reason doubt you). But could anything in three months of emails be deliberately or ignorantly misconstrued, along the lines of the “hide the decline” in the “Climategate” affair?

  • Laurence Jarvik:

    Dear Prof. Cronon: I wonder if you might discuss whether your writings about the Republican open records request may be in violation of the AHA standards of professional conduct? The request is obviously a historical fact. Were you not bound to treat it according to the following AHA standard? If not, why not?

    “Furthermore, the different peoples whose past lives we seek to understand held views of their lives that were often very different from each other—and from our own. Doing justice to those views means to some extent trying (never wholly successfully) to see their worlds through their eyes. This is especially true when people in the past disagreed or came into conflict with each other, since any adequate understanding of their world must somehow encompass their disagreements and competing points of view within a broader context. Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present.”

    • Damian Frontiera:

      I’m sorry Laurence but please correct me if I’m wrong in interpreting what you’re trying to say here. But are you saying that it’s against a professional code of conduct for a university professor (who is also a citizen) to question his government and how they conduct state business?? If this is what you’re implying wouldn’t you then be also implying that he and we as citizens should just put our heads in the sand when it comes to how our government runs the state? Logically that would mean that we should just give up all rights and everything fought for during the Revolution and Civil war was a moot point. Personally I’m not ready to put my head in the sand. I see no justification why a professor of history shouldn’t raise questions about why our government works the way it does. Without the questions being asked future generations would have to guess at what point the people lost control of their country. Critical thinking is actually in his job description, if it wasn’t he’d be a pretty lousy teacher.

  • John:

    I recommend thorough and minimal compliance, with nothing additional, no comment and nothing else whatsoever. Anything you say or write about it to them will contain something they can use as leverage. This is a fishing expedition and those conducting it are only jerking your chain. They lack both the time and the competence to do anything meaningful.

  • Valin:

    A pure witch hunt by the radical Reich to silence the critiques–pure and simple. The names and clear association of people behind this must be revealed. Who is paying for these fascistic tactics and why. Democracy will not die at the hands of bunch of Internet thugs.

    [@Valin: webmaster comment: I'm not sure what your point is, but you must refrain from attack language in the future.]

  • The Creator:

    I’m a South African academic who periodically writes letters and more rarely, newspaper articles of political commentary. I devote a lot of my energy to criticising South African politicians whose behaviour I feel is unsuited to the needs of my country. Our country has a Freedom of Information Act modelled on the U.S. one, which I presume resembles the relevant Act in Wisconsin. Nobody has ever attempted to trawl through my e-mails in search of anything. I mention this because South Africa is often seen as a less civilised country than the United States and the African National Congress a less disciplined and politically mature organisation than the Republican or Democratic Parties. This is all extremely worrying.

    What possible motive could there be to trawl through the e-mails of anyone who writes a political commentary, except to discredit that political commentary? In other words, to hope that the e-mails will provide material to use against Prof. Cronon and thus discredit what Prof. Cronon was saying. Now, part of the problem here is that if you are saying that all political commentary is a political act and therefore liable to response as if the author of the political commentary were a politician — then academic political analysis becomes impossible. Nobody would be able to deliver an open, impartial piece of academic political analysis if they were constantly afraid that a powerful politician, backed by all the wealth and legal authority which political parties have, were about to launch an attack on them. Unless, of course, they were political partisans who couldn’t care less about such attacks, and whose jobs were secure because their employers were happy to see such attacks launched because such attacks demonstrated a desirable partisanship.

    It seems to me that the Wisconsin Republicans are confusing the occupiers of think-tanks which are designed to generate supportive political propaganda, with intellectuals and academics. Intellectuals and academics are necessary if you are to understand what is going on in politics. Partisan think-tanks are part of the party propaganda machine and play no very important intellectual role. As such, the Wisconsin Republicans appear to be attacking the basic concepts of academic freedom which lie at the heart of the existence of tertiary education. What is more, a lot of people seem to think that this is a good thing.

    • Tamara:

      Well, since Dr Cronon is a state employee, they can initiate disciplinary proceedings and possibly even fire him if it is established he used his office and state funded facilities for personal or partisan purposes. That’s what they can hope to find in his emails. Failing to find material sufficient to have him put on administrative leave or dismissed, they can keep the storm brewing over his head long enough to make it difficult if not impossible to perform his job. They can make him such a polarized figure that conferences, publishers and other venues will hesitate when his name comes up. And this is not the end of it. In short, they can employ the very Joe McCarthy tactics, we called it blacklisting in the day, that we now see being more and more frequently used on the nation’s political right to instill a widespread fear to speak out.

      • Abdullah:

        Bravo, Tamara!

        That’s what was needed to be proved: the use of “office and state funded facilities for personal or partisan purposes”, which is to be kept secret because of, supposedly, you see, new “McCarthyism” !

        Inshallah, the true face of this “Scholar & Citizen” will become obvious to everybody.

  • wburble:

    Prof. Cronon, you seem to have a great deal of difficulty accepting the fact that you, and the university, are subject to the Wisconsin disclosure laws. You also don’t seem to understand the basic idea that someone else’s exercise of their lawful right of inquiry (in this case, Republicans who you perceive as, probably correctly, your political opponents), is in no manner a violation of any articulable “right” of your own. Requiring you to comply with the law does not impinge upon your “academic freedom.” The irony of all this, of course, is that Wisconsin’s very broad records disclosure law is itself a very progressive enactment. So, Professor, your continued efforts to stymie enforcement of the law are profoundly anti-progressive.

    As for your anonymous Republican letter writer–so what?

    • David Rhodes:

      Mr/Ms wburbl,

      May I please have access to all your email accounts and records so I can dig up anything and everything about you and publish it so you will lose your job and ruin your life?

      Thank you.

    • jre:

      Is there any intellectually credible defense of the Wisconsin Republicans’ actions here, or does the whole thing rest (as does the comment above) on bluster and non-sequiturs? Prof. Cronon, of course, has no “difficulty accepting the fact” that he is subject to a law he repeatedly praises, nor does he claim any right of his to have been violated, nor does he argue that compliance with the law impinges on his academic freedom. He does comment on a fact blindingly obvious to everyone — that the records request is a blatant and egregious abuse of process. I share his hope that the Republicans’ better angels will show themselves, but a more cynical observer expects that the disgrace they’ve already earned is only a start.

    • Richard Hodsdon:

      wburble – Did you actually read Prof. Cronon’s blog post before posting your response? If you did, your snide remarks show little evidence of it.

  • Damian Frontiera:

    As I sit and ponder the implications of what is occurring with this Freedom of Information Act request against Professor Cronon I find myself more and more frustrated at what it means as a student. While I am not nor have I been a student of Professor Cronon (I attend UW-Whitewater) I find it absolutely unacceptable that IF I were a student who’s teacher was in this same situation my correspondence would be subject to the public. I communicate often with my professors about my academics and other personal matters which are necessary and relevant for class but not for public consumption. This law seems to be in direct conflict with the FERPA and a work around for anyone to attain such records. If I were a student of the Professor I think right now I’d be seeking legal council. How do people justify that this is okay? When did we cross the line and say it was okay to give up our privacy and freedom? But don’t get me wrong I think public officials should be accountable and under constant scrutiny by those that elected them, the ironic thing is that elected officials like Governor Walker who are in the highest state office are exempt from this law and yet they wield the most power.

    Since Chancellor Biddy Martin has already given a green light I fear where this is heading as far as student privacy is concerned. If this is an acceptable means by which to gather information it sets a dangerous new standard and in my mind it doesn’t seem that far of a jump for someone to just use this tactic to gain information about students and bypass if not circumvent FERPA altogether.

    That being said, I’d still be curious how they intend to pull these emails and sort them out. There are a lot of problems with pulling 2 – 4k emails and sorting them out. UW-Madison employ’s mostly student staffing for it’s IT and they work usually 3 to 4 hour shifts this isn’t going to be an easy task, and I can bet most of them are probably cringing at this prospect. This is again assuming that the emails are even still on the server or available to be recovered.

    There is some seriously scary things happening in this state. I’m wondering how long it will take before the damage is so bad and irreversible that people start leaving the state.

  • Alex:

    Dr. Cronon-

    One commenter pointed out that, because you wrote an op-ed in the NYT, you have entered the political world and therefore subject to any political recourse. I completely disagree. As a professor and historian, your writings offered ideas for consideration, not an argument for any point. In a polarized, political world, it is of no surprise to me that whatever you wrote would be categorized as left or right, and it’s too bad.

    Your op-ed pointed out that Wisconsin used to be the state of great ideas. Now my home state is just a place of ideals.

    Good luck in this adventure. If, as you say, you have nothing to hide, just let it all out. They most likely won’t know what to do with it.

    Best,
    Dr. B

  • denelian:

    it seems to me, that if they don’t back off of their request, you will have but one option [and i do hope this doesn't get lost in the shuffle; contrawise, i hope i'm not being redundant, offering something already offered...]

    publish them all. that will be your only recourse – they’re going to try and quote mine, we all know this – therefor, you’ll need to publish EVERYTHING, so that people can see the truth.

    and doesn’t that suck. hopefully, your students and fellows will be understanding and give permission that you MAY do this.

    i really REALLY hate the the Party of Lincoln has become the party of, of, THIS.

  • Damian Frontiera:

    Reading the comments here, and comments on other blogs dealing with how our current local government is handling things I am seeing a rather scary trend. I see tossing words around like liberals, democrats, republicans, socialists, and capitalists to describe the label of another commenter because they don’t agree. I see people throwing blame for all these problems on the professor, or on another commenter and I have to ask myself “why?” I’m a college student, and a history major and anthropology minor. I’m taught to think critically and logically about every situation and it so happens I have an interest in human culture. I sit here utilizing the skills I have learned and thinking critically and logically about what has been happening in Wisconsin over the last few months I have begun to wonder how people can so readily close their eyes and trust so blindly in something that is so self absorbed that it’s obvious it’s doing more harm than good. Long term and short term.

    Let me explain…

    The labels that people are throwing around “liberal, democrat, republican, socialist” are words to describe an ideal based on a set of beliefs and more and more there is a divide between who’s right and who’s wrong. But the question is dangerous and the further divide goes the more hostile people get in order to prove their point and prove their side is “right”. You can use this forum as an example. When it first started posters were civil and generally respectful, and now the webmaster has to continually moderate the forum in order to reduce the hostility. History has shown us time and time again that when the ideals/beliefs of one group clash enough with another group they continually escalate into violence, it’s an unfortunate and inevitable outcome. I’ll come back to this point though because it’s important.

    Change of direction for just a moment…

    So each of these labels and groups believe they are right. Republicans believe they have the right to search through a professors emails, democrats believe they have the right to privacy and free speech. Who is right and who is wrong? Well lets think again about this critically and logically. The British felt they had the right to tax the colonies, and the colonies felt they had the right to representation before taxation to plead their case. The British didn’t agree and what happened? I use this example because it’s the easiest for people to understand and hopefully see where my point is going.

    Some time later the ideals between another two groups got into heated debates. The thirteen states had formed a very weak federal government but when the US Constitution was created giving the federal government trumping powers over state and local government it eventually lead to one of the bloodiest wars in history. You know it as the Civil War, and one of the only wars fought on American soil. And here’s an interesting fact, every war fought on American soil was fought because the freedom of human beings was being challenged or oppressed.

    These two examples are constantly played out in the world theater, we’ve seen it in Egypt, Libya, Africa, Iraq, Iran…. It’s the natural course of history that when a human being’s rights are being repressed and their ability to live is squeezed too tightly they fight back. So what does this tell you about some of the tactics we see happening in Wisconsin right now? The current government is using some questionable tactics, they are repressing rights of the individual and squeezing the peoples ability to live free. Politics in general use these tactics constantly and because it has been such a successful campaign there is, in my mind, a dangerous divide between the people. How many rights can be repressed before people have had enough? How much is too much? I ask myself these questions because when I read comments like this I wonder how much longer till downtown Madison starts looking like the images in Libya?? Am I being paranoid? I really hope so, but again I turn to the comments and the dangerous divide on these types of forums and I see a scary reality for my future. So much so that I’m already thinking that Wisconsin is not the state in which I plan to stay, and that’s unfortunate cause I like it here.

    So I now look to the source of these problems. Politics in many ways is like religion, people are so willing to fanatically believe in the ideals set by their religion they blind themselves to the atrocities that occur and find ways to justify them but in reality it’s nothing more than an excuse. Don’t get me wrong both have their place, people need leadership and they need faith. But it’s better to have idea’s and remain open minded than have a belief that cannot change and has no room for negotiation. I ask you to think about this point to yourself honestly, if you drop the labels and come together you’ll find that you all cherish the same thing. Proper education for your kids, a roof over your head, food on the table and your rights intact so that you may express yourself. By the time those of you who place so much stock in those labels figure this out, it’ll be too late. I’ll end with an interesting fact and let you make of it what you will, The historical average Empire lasts 250 years. The United States is roughly 227 years old.

    • Jonathan:

      Hey,
      Thank you so much for stating the obvious that’s glossed over so often. I think when we use these terms (socialist, fascist) it is an attempt to devalue the person making them. It is easy to attack someones believes when you equate them to be a substandard person.

      Thanks for being a voice of moderation.

    • Tamara:

      Good points all. Please allow me to make one note. The typical way one identifies ‘empire’, as I think you mean to use it, is the hegemon. A center in the sense that money and resources flow to it and cultural and political influence flows from it. I am unaware of a theory of history that meaningfully supports the concept of an expected lifespan in years for hegemons. I am sure you did not mean to suggest there was. My point is simply that the US has not occupied this position for 227 years. While there is surely much debate about actual dates, I think the the US has filled this role closer to 100 years.

  • Wendi Beane:

    As someone who works for a State University, it is very troubling that politicians from a particular Party can investigate you over an opinion you posted on a non-state website. And why requesting your email from the University doesn’t required a search warrant boggles my mind, since what you posted on your blog site had nothing to do with job at the University. This is not right and should not be allowed.

  • martin rosen:

    I thank goodness for Professors like Bill Cronon who demonstrate the essential link between scholarship and citizenship.
    In this age of the sound bite and “march madness” our democracy requires the courage as well as wisdom that Professor Cronon offers each of us.
    Martin Rosen

  • Andy:

    Professor Cronon,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and reasonable analysis of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s FOIA request for your emails. The likely consequences of their actions are indeed pernicious. I am 53 years old and I cannot recall having witnessed so many loathsome actions by either major party as I have seen by Republicans in recent months. I keep hoping that a modern day Howard Baker will step forward and say to the reckless members of his party — Enough!

  • CRobertson:

    Dr. Cronon,
    I admire your historical scholarship, but you cannot be naive about politics. If you editorialilze about a political situation, you should expect to have critics. You have entered the political arena on the side of the Democrats-did you really think the Republicans would not respond? Academic freedom does not mean using your position to advocate for a political party, and that is what your editorial does.
    As an academic your professional opinion carries tremendous political weight. You should not be surprised if the Republicans want to know how many and how often you may be influencing a generation of students, and, or your colleagues-not to mention the general public. However right you may feel about your opinions- they are still subject to the same scrutiny as any others.
    As a state employee, you should remember, your position as a scholar and a professor does not put you above the law. Your comments about not being subject to the FOIA sounds elitist. If you really feel you are an elite, then you have a problem. If you didn’t mean for your blog to sound this way, then you may want to elaborate as to why your employment status exempts you from the law. Your argument about student privacy and organizational confidentiality does not establish a justification for exemption since there are ways around the university releasing those emails.
    I suggest that you trust your university legal office to do due diligence- and the next time you offer a liberal argument against a Republican effort, be prepared to live life in a glass house.

    • “Your comments about not being subject to the FOIA sounds elitist.”

      I think you misunderstand. According to the post above, certain emails are subject to additional privacy laws – it is not elitist.

    • wayne k:

      If we cannot learn about influences on government from private (members only) organizations, and we cannot learn about the influences from independent scholars or public educators afraid of ruining their careers, and if we cannot inquire without fear of retribution or public scrutiny for ourselves, we will be too ignorant to elect an objective government.

    • Mark:

      “…next time you offer a liberal argument against a Republican effort, be prepared to live life in a glass house.”

      And yet, the modern GOP is the most secretive, closed shop around. If we ask anything about the influences on our elected officials, suddenly, privacy is all the rage. To this day, we do not know what went on in that meeting Cheney had with oil company representatives. We have only the map divvying up that country.

      It’s becoming clear the modern GOP admires the old Soviet Union with its one party rule and crushing of dissent by any means available…

  • meaton:

    Rather than spend all that time speculating as to the motives behind the request for the emails, why not just ask Mr. Thompson? Afterall, he did not make the request anonymously as he could have. It would be far better for people on opposite sides of an issue to actually talk with one another and deal with the situation rather than talk at, talk about, or speculate the others positions and motives — nothing gets solved through this method.

    This cannot be better demonstrated by the political theatre taking place in Wisconsin. I certainly do not condone the methods exercised by Governor Walker or the Wisconsin republicans, but I find the behavior of the democrats that left the state rather than report for work to do a task that they found unpleasant is reprehensible and I wish that they had not come running to my state. How many other employees could engage in that behavior and still have a job to come back to?

    • Why didn’t Thompson simply ask Cronon then?

    • Tamara:

      ahhh … Dr Cronon did ask Thompson. Thompson replied that it was ‘chilling’ that he should be asked. He actually called it ‘bullying’.

      As for the state legislators that walked out, you should understand a few basic things about representative government. It is not a business and these are not, per se, employees. They are elected officials and their only job is to represent their constituencies by whatever legal means they see fit. There is nothing illegal in their decision to not provide a quorum. They are not the lapdogs of the majority and they would indeed be abrogating the trust bestowed upon them by their constituencies to simply kowtow to Republican demands to rubber-stamp their agenda. This is how it works. And it works well.

      It required more than resolve for them to take the action they did. It required courage. They know that the opposition would and will continue to miscast what has occurred. They know that there are more than a few citizens, like yourself , who let feelings run ahead of a grasp of the facts. Fortunately we are blessed with scholars and educators, the like of Dr Cronon, who at least by reaching a few can uplift the many.

    • P.E. Bird:

      Chinese Communist Party demands from Yahoo and Google emails from suspected political opponents. Justification – it is the law.

      Republican Party demands from University emails from suspected political opponents. Justification – it is the law.

      Republican – standard bearer of individual liberty and crusader against government intervention.

  • Ken:

    Another fallout of releasing e-mail is the
    possibility of scarring away great student from attending
    UW-Madison. As a former graduate student of well respected
    university, I would be leary of attending a university where
    my personal communications with my advisor were made public.
    I would also be less forthcoming with advice to my current students
    if those conversations were made available to an organization
    who’s sole intent is to discredit.

  • j. fleming:

    as the theater of canned outrage reaches its crescendo with the professor as its pagliacci, it’s worth it to note the irony that while the professor only pretends at being the victim of intimidation, there had been another tenured uw-m professor, prof. anne althouse, who was made the victim of actual intimidation, including explicit death threats, at the hands of walker’s opponents.

    • sgomez:

      As the typical conservative tactic of blaming the victim (and the poor and the old and the sick and the weak..) continues, it’s worthy of note that the ‘threat” mr.fleming is all up in arms about is written as if by an [..] pre-teen. here’s the link to althouse’s page about this… http://althouse.blogspot.com/2011/03/union-thuggery-against-althouse-and.html. If prof. althouse was seriously intimidated by that threat, she should’ve gone to the police and had the instigator tracked down and arrested. But seriously, mr fleming, did you read that ‘threat’? I doubt even prof althouse took that seriously.

      Feel free to equate the [..] anonymous blog posts [..] with the strong-arm tactics of the Wisconsin State Republican Party, but that only makes the GOP look like the thuggish bullies they are.

      • webmaster:

        @sgomez: Reminder that abusive language and personal attacks violate the Terms of Service. I’ve edited your comment as lightly as I could. All commenters are most welcome, but should make their points in a civil tone.

      • j. fleming:

        some corrections:

        the threat was not published by a preteen, but by an adult activist named jim shankman, who had been a long-standing progressive activist in madison.

        the threat was not issued as a hasty comment left on a blog, but as a formal release published at scribd.

        the anonymity of a death threat would ordinarily be considered to be consistent with intent to execute the threat, rather than insincerity, and prof. althouse most certainly A) took it seriously and B) reported it to the authorities.

        finally, the only thing which distinguishes the death threat against prof. althouse from the several death threats made against wisconsin gop officials is that she is a professor at uw-m, and i anticipated a reaction such as yours which presumes that all victims are not equal. it is clear, given the silence and dismissal of prof. althouse’s victimization, that the allegedly special social status of the scholar is an empty trope which the people citing it don’t really respect in any universal sense. prof. cronon’s status as a scholar, cited as a feature which makes the FOIA request especially heinous, is just another imperious raiment which has been shown to be transparent.

        it would seem that it is the view of many opponents of the wisconsin gop that some people deserve intimidation, death threats and perhaps death. people who hold the “correct” views, on the other hand, to even breach questions about their motives or standing to smear the motives and legitimate political activities of others is addressed as if it were a mortal crime. even only the latter part of that equation is an expression of a disturbingly antipluralistic mindset. one which i’m afraid is common amongst progressives.

        • erik:

          @j.fleming You do realize that if you change “wisconsin gop” to “Obama’s health care plan” and “progressives” to the “Tea Party” the statement would also be accurate? I remember Tea Party people screaming at health care meetings and arming themselves at rallies outside town halls. Glenn Beck pretended to poison Speaker Pelosi on his show. That was on the right wing. Not “disturbingly anti-pluralistic” enough for you? How about no death threats for anyone?

  • eib:

    Quote:
    Here’s the headline: the Wisconsin Republican Party has issued an Open Records Law request for access to my emails since January 1 in response to a blog entry I posted on March 15 concerning the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in influencing recent legislation in this state and across the country.
    end quote.

    That’s a bad move on the part of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
    They are trying, by this act, to cast aspersions on your character, to focus on you, Dr. Cronon.
    If anything, your adversaries are looking much, much worse than you are.
    McCarthyism anyone?

    • Abdullah:

      i.e.,
      only the Republicans can be presented & construed as “McCarthyists”,
      and Dr. Cronon’s lucky he’s not messing with the Wisconsin Dem. Party,
      in which case their request would be 100% legit, kosher and halal ???

      Looks like you hold FOIA for the pseudo-liberal use only, and woe to the Republicans who
      would dare to resort it…

      • webmaster:

        @Abdullah: Because you seem new to this blog, reminder that comments must avoid abusive language and personal attacks, and be made in a respectful manner (see Terms of Service in footer). Your last 4 comments are running afoul of this without making substantive arguments. Stop.

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