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”

  • Andrew Nelson:

    Nice post. Best wishes for a good outcome.
    I get the impression that a lot of politicians in the US still do not realise how their actions are widely reported worldwide, and do not understand the damage that their worse-than-childlike actions and utterances do to the reputation of the US in the world community. I know there are a lot of wonderful and generous people in the US, but my whole view these days is skewed by news such as what as happened here.

  • imaginary student:

    Cool! I can now send FOIA requests with keywords “to” and “from” for all the profs I hate… there is bound to be something juicy in some of those e-mails that I can use to get even on the low grades I got. At the very least it will waste a lot of time from those unhelpful administrators in my school and give the profs a hurt burn. Republican party, thanks to your creative ideas every day I find myself one step closer to the idealized rational-agent found in economics textbooks!

  • Willem:

    You obviously didn’t read what the professor wrote. And I quote:

    “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.”

    Please sir. Don’t only see what you want to see. Read the piece and just for once start reasoning for yourself.

  • KMR:

    Professor Cronan,

    I am currently a graduate student in a museum studies program, and as part of my coursework read your book “Changes in the Land”. I just wanted to take this opportunity to say that I am a big fan of your work, past and present, and I support your efforts here to bring a modicum of scholarship to today’s political discourse.

    It is sorely needed.

    Keith from New York

  • TheraP:

    Bravo for standing up here! I enjoyed your Times Op-Ed. And I’m honestly horrified (though not surprised) by the republican effort to try and undermine you.

    Seems to me that the republicans are stirring up one more hornet’s nest, which is going to lower them still further (if that’s possible) in the eyes of honorable folk, whether here in WI, in the US, or even around the world.

    I’m sorry for all the inconvenience this is causing you. But in the end I suspect it will lead to even greater inconvenience and heaps of scorn upon those who seek to smear your reputation. Like a boomerang it will come back to them!

    Peace be with you. And strength and courage!

  • Jean-Denis Muys:

    I am as removed as can be imagined from this drama:

    – I am not American, I’m French
    – I don’t live in America, much less in Wisconsin, I live in France
    – I am not an historian, I am a computer professional
    – I am not a scholar, I work in the industry
    – I am not a public servant, my company is private

    yet I am deeply moved and worried by this new development from one of the greatest democracy in the word, at least so far.

    You have all my support, totally worthless as it may be.

    Jean-Denis Muys
    Paris, France.

  • S Temple:

    Bravo for your fearless academic inquiry and publishing. Your posts alert us that we should be paying much more attention to the historical context of today’s seemingly unique and outrageous attacks on freedoms of every kind. What a privilege it would be to be a student in one of your classes!

  • Michael Green:

    As a fellow historian (at a much lower level in every way!) who also tries to be engaged in public discourse, I am not surprised that the Republican party would resort to this. Perhaps all of us have learned a lesson, too, about the honesty and morality of some politicians, eh?

  • Larry Platt:

    Go get ’em, Prof!

  • Tina H:

    I find this blog and discussion very educational. I am also a graduate student at a university that is not in WI and it is interesting to see what one should be careful of when using the university email system. I agree with the professor in that this seems to be a ploy to intimidate academics throughout his state and to inspire others to do so nationally, and as a public school teacher, I have been wondering when the attacks on the universities would begin – this appears to be an opening salvo.

    A few years ago I attended a talk about how private organizations and corporations were becoming more involved with funding universities, to the point where the “public” universities were not actually public. It leads me to wonder what the definition of “public university” is? I notices that less than 50% of UW’s funding actually comes from state or federal sources. Does that mean that they are only 1/2 public employees and half independent or private sector? If so, does only half the law apply? The information on UW funding is public domain at http://www.wisc.edu/about/facts/budget.php

    Just something for those who call for public disclosure for “public” employees to mull over…

  • Brenda:

    “I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
    —E. B. White

    Thank you Professor Cronon for improving the world through education.

  • SaveOurDemocracy:

    Professor Cronon makes excellent points for why the FOIA request is abusive. What concerns me even more is that the Republican party made absolutely no attempt to conceal their tracks which can only mean they do not give a damn what we think anymore.

    The larger picture though is that Professor Cronon clearly stirred up a hornet’s nest which can only have happened, as he surmised, because he came too close to the actual truth of the matter. He is to be congratulated because not enough people of standing are asking the hard questions that need to be asked. Can’t anyone see that the worker’s rights and public services being stripped away in Wisconsin are under the same attack across the USA and even in other countries like Canada and Britain. There is something much larger at work here that affects that majority of us citizens and we cannot unite against it while we are cleverly divided by smokescreens like religious differences, fear (of everything), greed and envy.

    So what do the politicians get out of the agressive stripping away of public services and worker’s rights? Now that is something I’d love to see a FOIA request for.

    On another note isn’t it interesting that the uprisings in the Middle East countries are being driven by middle-class and working-class people tired of oppression from the wealthy and politically well-connected. There apparently is a limit to how abuse human beings will accept.

  • Truelove:

    I feel I need to say thank you for seeing this overt power grab for what it is and debating rationally against it.

  • Michael L. McManus:

    Dear Prof. Cronon,

    You have performed a great public service for which I am thankful. Your Blog is fascinating reading even to someone who is an ecologist and not a historian. Though I’ve been a CT Yankee for 45 years now, I’m a Chicago native and appreciate Midwest values. I’m an Independent by choice, but i truly hope that your writings will unleash the “fires of hell” on the Untra-conservative Republlican movement in this country. They are not the party of Lincoln!

  • MK:

    Dear Professor Cronon,

    I’m a university professor (tenured) who has often wondered about the disappearance of the public intellectual. I happen to agree with you, but even if I didn’t, I’d be glad you were out there, showing us how it’s done, at no little cost to yourself. I’m now actively contemplating how I can follow your good example.

  • jmh:

    The request for your work emails made by the republican party does surprise me. While I have not achieved the academic level or attention as you have in your position at UW….I work as a teacher for a public school system in neighboring MN. While my work emails has never been purged in the way yours has been…I am made acutely aware that anything I write or send from my work email address is considered the property or my school district. You and I are both public employees in a world bound by rules and hidden agendas. I do congratulate you on the sharing of your thoughts…consider this request my the republican party a job hazard. And, be glad for tenure. Because without tenure, both you and I would have been ousted from our present positions long ago!

  • Kris Hall:

    THANK YOU FOR SHARING SO MUCH POWERFUL INFORMATION!! I HAVE SAID ALL ALONG, PEOPLE NEED TO EDUCATE THEMSELVES AND LOOK TO SPREAD TRUTHS AS OPPOSED TO SPREADING LIES. YOU HAVE DONE THAT MORE ELOQUENTLY THAN MOST COULD. I FOUND MYSELF WISHING I COULD BE ENRICHED EVEN MORE MY BEING IN YOUR CLASS. It is a sad day when intellectual voices are being censored or attempting to silence them and I admire you for what you have done!! Let us not forget that teachers were targeted by Adolph Hitler along with religious leaders in attempt to silence them too. WE ALL NEED TO SERIOUSLY LOOK AT THE DIRECTION THE CURRENT REPUBLICAN GOP IS GOING. IT PERSONALLY SCARES ME TO DEATH, HOWEVER, I AM EMPOWERED BY YOUR LEADERSHIP AND KNOW THAT THE RIGHT THING TO DO IS TO CONTINUE TO EDUCATE EVERYONE SO THEY CAN MAKE WISE DECISIONS.

  • Sam:

    Thanks for the insightful work (all of it). I have one question: what are the results of the FOIA/Wisconsin Public records law request for emails between the Wisconsin legislators and @alec.org?

  • Edward Hillard:

    Prof. Cronon,
    I read your excellent op-ed in the NYT. Now I am learning from Andrew Leonard in Salon what you have reaped from your adroit coverage of the background of the current Wisconsin Republican agenda. Comparisons between this agenda and that of the Nazis in Nazi Germany, Shirer notes in “The Collapse of the Third Republic” that as of 1936, relatively early in the Third Reich, Hitler had cancelled collective bargaining for the unions. You are the right person for this hard job. Please continue with your work to expose the corrupt underside of this pernicious trend.
    Edward Hillard,
    Palo Alto, California

  • C. Dee:

    Fantastic article. I hope that cooler heads will prevail and that the Wisconsin GOP will withdraw their politically-motivated request. Kudos to you for refusing to be intimidated by their blatant scare tactics.

  • Dan Levin:

    As a graduate of the University of Wisconsin (BA, MA, Ph.D) and current academic well out of state, I am enormously proud of the constructive work which Bill Cronon has done to provide a larger picture of the history of Wisconsin Republicanism and its current betrayal. Lee Dreyfus was governor when I was an undergrad at UW and, while I didn’t necessarily support him, I always respected him and felt that he respected those who disagreed with him. Walker and the current Republican crowd have abandoned that proud tradition of basic civility and comity. It gladdens me that Bill Cronon and other UW scholars are now serving the public good by reminding us of the history.

  • Becca:

    If ever the phrase “a gentleman and a scholar” could be applied, it would be to you. Keep writing and studying; professors like you are why I am trying to return to higher education at the UW Madison.

  • Thank you for clearing explaining why this issue is so important to our democracy. We stand with you, Professor Cronon, and against those who would place limits on what we can know about the acts and actors, that seek to covertly and overtly change our way of life.

  • I am very proud of you, Dr. Cronon. What a great job you are doing!

    You are fighting for all of us.

    The current crop of neo-fascist Republicans is a huge threat to our democracy.

    Remember, you have tremendous support behind you!

  • Thomas E. Wark:

    Dear Prof. Cronon:

    As a retired newspaper editor who has used FOIA on countless occasions to pry lose information to which the public is entitled, I applaud your courageous stand agains the Wisconsin Republican party’s blatant abuse of the law.

  • Robert Entenmann:

    Could the Freedom of Information Act be used by a student or colleague to gain access to confidential letters of recommendation or evaluations for tenure and promotion? Much of an academic’s correspondence must be confidential, whether it’s email or paper. Even the GOP in Wisconsin should understand that.

  • While having been beaten to the punch at the mention of the climategate stolen e-mails, I wish to assert that there is a great danger in what the Wisc. Repubs wish to do here. You may have done nothing that you would want to hide, but they are looking for something that they can twist to make it look like your are doing evil against the Badger State.

    You could look for them to use ellipses in quoted passages to mine damning data where there is none.

    Given that conservatives are quite all right with using James O’Keefe’s edited versions of a hidden camera video at a lunch with an NPR exec as a tool to de-fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it’s quite clear that they would have no compunction against doing the same to you from your correspondences.

  • I know I should not be surprised by such tactics by the Wisconsin GOP, but I d keep hoping for a more democratic response by your state’s GOP and the GOP in this country. Their action to intimidate you in an obvious attempt to silence you, is one we all must stand against.

  • Damian Frontiera:

    First let me say thank you for standing up for what’s right. No political or governmental body has the right to harass its citizens. This harassment you’re experiencing is further proof of the under handed means by which our new state government works and that is a scary prospect.

    Second, I’ve worked in IT for over 12 years. I’ve spent time in UW-Madison’s DoIT center and the DoA (Department of Administration) and I can tell you that any request like this coming through any IT office would probably get laughed out of the office. Jokes aside though, most enterprise (email) servers keep the email as long as it hasn’t been retrieved by the user. After it’s been retrieved it’s deleted from the server and the only way to recover it is if the system has a tape backup which are usually done as a nightly thing and only kept for a small amount of time. This is usually why IT tells you to archive your emails on your computer because retrieving emails from the server once they have been recovered is a pain and usually impossible. It is almost a safe bet that your emails that far back are no longer recoverable and only your emails in the last month have any hope of recovery but I still doubt it. Somehow I don’t see the school paying 150k+ for the backup system needed to keep emails that long. Nor do I see the students who make up the majority of the IT team even remotely enthusiastic about going through one of their professors 2000+ emails in an attempt to find emails with a dozen key words. As another commenter pointed out this is a job that would take months!

    Thanks again for standing up for whats right in Wisconsin. You give hope that there are people who are willing to ask the hard questions and not back down when the beehive that is our local government gets aggressive.

  • Rick:

    Prof. Cronon:

    Let me thank you this first time for the things you have said about our state and the academic freedom within it.

    Wonderful.

    Richard

  • SS:

    You cant be serious Prof. Cronon. I am quite certain you are part of the crowd that celebrated the release of Wikileaks data. Most liberals did.

    So, according to liberals, even if the President of the United States thinks some information should be protected in national interest, it is okay for a liberal to steal and expose it? BUT, if the Republican Party wants to use legal means to dig into the doings of 1 random professor, it is a threat to the Republic! Wow!

    The Republicans have used FOIA to ask for your emails. They have a RIGHT to do that, remember? Are you saying they should be deprived of legal rights because they disagree with you politically? And yes, if you
    in fact have used your university email for purposes not related to the mission of the university, you ARE liable for punishment. You have indeed committed misconduct if you have used your public funded state email account for non educational purposes. The taxpayers of Wisconsin should not have to fund your political agenda.

    There are any number of free webmail companies…yahoo…gmail…etc. Use one of them and campaign your heart out. Who is stopping you? But, you can’t fault someone for exercising their legal rights…

    What are you going to complain about next? Right wing supporters exercising their right to vote? Is that also a threat to the Republic?

    • Damian Frontiera:

      Did you actually read his post or just skim it? Tell me, as a student discussing your grades about a paper on the republican party in the civil war do you want that public knowledge??? I know I don’t, and as a student and he as a professor shouldn’t have to use a gmail account to make that discussion.

      It’s one thing to disagree on the basis that you believe in something, it’s another to disagree because you’re being ignorant. Everything you’re accusing this professor of, being a liberal etc… you’re doing yourself as a republican. How does that make you any better? How does that validate your points here?

    • anon:

      /facepalm

    • webmaster:

      @SS A reminder that commenters must provide a valid email address. It is not published.

    • Cyndy:

      SS (interesting moniker, by the way) I just finished reading Professor Cronon’s rather lengthy post, so I can understand why you might not have been able to make it all the way through or read with it any comprehension and I attribute most of your mystifying comments to that assumption. Your last comment, however, did grab my attention and prompt me to respond. While it unfortunately hasn’t elicited the same kind of media attention as Wisconsin’s political turmoil, take a look at what is happening in the Michigan State House in Lansing right now. You can indeed be worried about disenfranchisement (that is a big word that means depriving someone of their right to vote, or marginalizing their power – particularly regarding their vote). The newly elected Governor Snyder (R) has managed to write into law the ability to appoint emergency managers of school districts and municipalities that he feels are in financial difficulty. Those emergency managers have the power – among other things – to remove elected officials, dissolve all contracts (including collective bargaining agreements) and even dissolve entire local governments and have them be absorbed into others. Strange that this is all emanating from conservatives. It seems quite radical, to me.

      • Paul H.:

        Cyndy, I don’t think snottiness elevates the discussion nearly as much as you think it does. The problem liberals have in our current national discourse is that few people besides liberals take them seriously because of this apparent inability to distinguish between lack of intelligence and honest disagreement.

        Try a little humility, it’ll do your soul good. It also, in the end, will lend you a little credibility with those of us who are not of your tribe.

    • Greg:

      You obviously didn’t read. It’s unfortunate that your own winner-take-all partisanship prevents you from recognizing that there are others out there with more moderate and considered views that do not toe any party line.

    • M Smith:

      You can’t be serious yourself SS, and I find it strangely appropriate that you use SS as your ID. I am a liberal, though not in the strictest sense of the word. Yes FOIA serves a vital purpose, and yes I agree that Julian Assange should be prosecuted. But there is a difference between prosecution and persecution. apparently you cannot or will not see the difference. Apparently you are one of the Republicans that are out to silence the Professor for simply raising very salient questions. This kind of strongarm tactic cannot and will not be tolerated. This request to examine Professor Cronon’s e-mails is a terror tactic designed to protect the interests of politicians that are acting outside of the boundaries of law and justice. I am thoroughly apalled at your post, and I am apalled at the actions of the Wisconsin republican legislature. How dare you sir? How dare you indeed? Pack up your jackboots and move to one of those disgusingly repressive totalitarian countries where they will welcome you with open arms, and then with open firearms. Our forefathers established this great nation on certain basic freedoms. We will stand and fight to protect them to our last breath, and never surrender to political weasels such as yourself.

    • Greg Vitercik:

      You apparently did not read Professor Cronon’s post; you fabricate unfounded assumptions about his attitudes on issues not discussed or pertinent to the issues and you make accusations of “guilt” based on no other evidence than the GOP’s transparently flimsy concerns. In his post, Professor Cronon responded to all the “ifs” you throw around, so with those accusations you are calling him a liar. On what basis? I didn’t see any attack on voters of any persuasion in his post; why do you end with such a childish prediction? Why, finally, does the right engage in politics as though it were playground bullying?

  • patricia w:

    This should be the motto of the present Republican Party: “When you can’t fight fair and win, fight dirty”

  • John Lawrence:

    I have an erudite friend who told me two years ago that we were heading for fascism. Hmmm, I think that bus has arrived. Bravo Bill Cronin. Keep up the fight. (I’m sure it’s going to get much nastier than this)

    By the way, if there truly is academic freedom (at state universities), why can’t a professor have political views and back a particular party or candidate? Doesn’t sound like freedom to me.

  • William Burgess Leavenworth:

    For what it’s worth, I am behind you, and I’d guess most of the tenured and untenured academics in America are as well.
    W. B. Leavenworth
    PhD

  • Problem is that my life is not easily divided into “personal” and “university” or “JOB” – my life is my job so to speak. The university gains from my association with them (sure, they give me a job and salary) but if I am made to feel like the university can/will censor my communications I might as well never use my university computing facilities and or confess my association with it. To the university’s detriment. It is a sad state of affairs when we have to be concerned about “big brother watching” – narrow minded, punctilious administrators holding a sword over our heads. Might as well just withdraw and conduct our lives detached from university communication resources altogether. In a country where freedom of expression and inquiry is advocated this is very disappointing.

  • Phil:

    You’re not unique in having the Freedom of Information laws used maliciously as a weapon against you.

    It was also used against climate scientists in the so-called Climategate affair.

    I expect to see more widespread attacks in the future.

  • Katherine A. Dettwyler:

    Does this also mean that we (university professors) are never supposed to delete any of our emails? I have a strict limit on the amount of space I can take up on the University of Delaware server with my email account, and at the end of every semester I routinely purge almost all of my emails. My Facebook account is also under my university account — probably should change that! Heaven forbid that anyone should see how many of my university account emails are about what’s for dinner, requests to my mother for recipes, and gripes to colleagues about annoying or lazy students. Dr. Cronon — you are going above and beyond the call of duty to clearly explain what is happening in Wisconsin, and you have my full support.

    • Paul H.:

      I can’t speak to your specific situation, Katherine, so take this with a grain of salt. But as a general rule I think it would be prudent, and also, perhaps, a bit more honest, to reserve one’s “company” computer for doing the work that one’s employer is paying you to do, whatever that may be. I follow this rule (I work for a private company), as do everyone else I know working in the private sector. So does Prof. Cronon, it seems. I think this attitude is less common among those who work for state educational institutions, but I don’t see why that should be: the taxpayers of your state, most of whom are not as privileged as you and your colleagues, are sacrificing their hard-earned bread to provide all of you with these resources. It dishonors their sacrifice, I think, to treat your state-provided resources as though they were your personal property to do with as you wish. This, in my opinion, is the more important aspect of this question, rather than whatever the risk might be of having your personal communications perused by the state or made public, although that is definitely a consideration too. No matter how it feels to us, the fact is that neither your university computer account nor my company computer account belongs to us. They belong to our employers — ultimately, to the taxpayers of the state of Delaware and the stockholders of my company, respectively.

      Gmail, Yahoo mail, Twitter, Facebook etc. are all free and easy to use. These are more appropriate venues for engaging in one’s personal communications activities — not merely engaging in political speech, but anything that falls under the rubric of personal or avocational activities.

      • J. Roush:

        Honestly, Paul, do you not understand the difference between an email account and a computer? I’ve never been a public employee, so cannot comment upon their work habits, but I’ve personally witnessed hundreds of private sector employees while away hours at work, on the clock as well as the boss’s equipment, playing solitaire, posting Facebook updates, and indulging in any number of other time-wasting behaviors. Oh, and checking personal email on their wonderful “free” gmail and Yahoo accounts for good measure!

        As to the great “sacrifice” of the taxpayers that makes it possible for the public workers to enjoy a middle class lifestyle and decent health care, will you please at least acknowledge that they are paid to provide services demanded by the very same taxpayers? I am a close observer of local government and I guarantee you that everyone wants the services — they just don’t want to pay the going rate.

    • plastic899:

      Professor Detwiler,

      check with your University’s Administration. No doubt they have a written document retention policy in place which will tell you what your obligations are if any. Most likely anything that you send out or receive on your official university email account is saved or backed up on your department’s server.

  • Kim Wright:

    Professor Cronon,

    I’m so sorry you have to spend time and energy on this dishonorable assault on your character and profession. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and responsible citizenship in response. I hope many will follow your example of looking beyond partisanship in cherishing the principles of our democracy, while speaking out about forces that threaten our treasured institutions.

    I very much appreciate your thoughtful honoring of the contributions of both major parties in Wisconsin’s history. I hope the current swing of the pendulum brings us back to a place of balance where honest discourse is once again practiced. I miss the days of thoughtful discussions where people of differing views leave having learned something from each other.

    I have fond memories of an evening sitting between Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson at a banquet honoring conservation champions of Wisconsin. We have serious challenges as a state and nation that require us to transcend money-driven political divisions. I know it can be done, I’ve seen it work in the past.

    I hope all people, of whatever political persuasion, will require accountability and integrity from their elected officials. Corruption is a personal choice, it comes in both red and blue.

    Thank you again for your great contribution and spark in these important times.

    Kim Wright

  • Rick Hintze:

    How does this apply to incoming emails? It seems they should be off limits since there is no control over who sends you an email message. Also, the “other side” could send fake, incriminating emails just as they could plant troublemakers in a crowd. Should we be hesitant to send email with political content to anyone with a state email address?

  • Renee Berentsen Davis:

    You should take a look at David Corn’s latest article in Mother Jones. “My latest in MotherJones.com. I filed an open records request for Barbour’s gubernatorial emails. His office says I can get them-if I pay nearly $60,000 (possibly up to $200,000) & after the state spends months retrieving them and reviewing them. An email expert says Barbour should be able to produce the emails much quicker: “these guys clearly don’t want to share and are putting up a lot of smoke to keep you out.” – David Corn.

    Here’s an excerpt…

    “And it’s money up front. Barbour’s office, Jones writes, “will need to receive a check in the amount of $58,191 for the estimated costs before any documents are produced.” If it does turn out that the actual costs are higher, the difference will have to be paid before the governor’s office releases “any documents.” That makes it seem possible that Barbour’s office, after cashing a check for nearly $60,000 to get the process going, could boost the estimated fees by tens of thousands of dollars and not release any of the material unless that amount is paid.”

    Here’s a link to his article. – http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/haley-barbour-emails-mississippi

    You should check it out!

  • Pinky:

    Not immune to bad proofreading…

    “We had people protecting the ‘unfair death tax’ that would never touch their estates” should have been (obviously): “We had people protesting the ‘unfair death tax’ that would never touch their estates”.

    I apologize for any other mistakes that I may have missed, although it was tragically hilarious having someone actually defend the end of the ‘death tax’ to my face. They were currently unemployed and even when employed would never have faced this ‘unfair tax’ in their wildest dreams and yet the GOP/right wing planted that unrealistic fear into their heads rather easily and forcefully. They were convinced beyond any arguments that I could make to ally their fears… It was tragic and embarrassing to witness.

    • Chic Matthews:

      I’ve never heard a good explanation for the “death tax” what is the legal basis for a tax on death? All I’ve ever heard is: We (the government) need it. “We need it” doesn’t sound like a good reason for a tax. Whats the straight dope on this?

  • Pinky:

    I see parallels with (Godwin’s law broken) the German Nazi movement too.

    Their total attack on the social fabric of their society resulted in the public being rather silent on the extermination of other human beings. Their near total control of the rhetoric and shaping of the dialog and overuse of label theory made the overthrow of common sense and decency very easy.

    I see the effects of illogic everywhere. We have poor and working class people across this country protesting for tax cuts for the wealthy. We have similar groups pushing for repeal of collective bargaining and union registration activities.

    We had people protecting the ‘unfair death tax’ that would never touch their estates and yet they were convinced that it would destroy ‘family farms’ of which the Tyson poultry megalopolis has been labeled.

    The GOP seems to be suffering from tea poisoning and seeks to destroy just about every means that the public can use to become informed. Their war on science is legendary and it’s more wide spread and pernicious than that.

    It’s as if they have taken the large body of dystopian literature and cinema and have cooked it down to a mass that can usurp the common sense and decency of the people of this nation.

    Global warming is real. Also is the dumbing down of the American Proletariat. They are now represented by a group of brown shirted agitators and frauds who seek to destroy them and this country for profit of a relative few.

    The GOP plays for keeps. They break the rules with impunity because they know that they can warp the public opinion and can destroy people with endless innuendo. Why else was Fox News such a ‘must have’ for them and the fight against public education has been such a focus for the right wing. (Look up the DeVos family connection to destroying public education for starters)

    They seek to not only nullify everything good that has happened since the creation of this country, but they are able to portray their attacks as being in the ‘public’s good’. What a success for the enemies of this nation, both foreign and domestic.

    What their true goal is remains a mystery but from the early looks at it, it’s got to be somewhat worse than third world status.

    In the book, “The Handmaid’s Tale’, Atwood paints a devastating picture of the future of a right wing takeover of this country. Get ready for it. It WILL happen here. IF we don’t work to educate the public and stop their plans.

    I believe it was Lenin who said that our form of government was doomed because we give the tools for its destruction to the people. Yes, he was partially right. It was the access to those tools that has kept the democracy in America so vibrant but it is those tools that have steadily chipped away at the foundations of it that we are seeing the effects of today.

    Perhaps America will survive this. Perhaps not. In an era of runaway capitalism I can hope that the America that emerges from this cancerous time will be wiser and stronger and less susceptible to the machinations of corporate and oligarchical power plays in the future.

    One thing is for sure, this is going to be ‘interesting times’ that are ahead for us and the planet.

  • Bill,
    I think the University has a clear-cut way to solve several of the issues associated with this request: they should reply that they will accede to the request, but it will take several years for student workers to go over the emails to vet the privacy concerns you mention, and thus it will cost the Republican party a few million dollars.

    Only the proper stuff gets out, and university budget problems solved!

    • William Leavenworth:

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Of course, dealing with neo-Republicans, you’re trying to hit a pin on the head.

      • Scot Trombly-Freytag:

        I must respectfully disagree with this suggested action for two reasons:

        1) In this case, the end does not justify the means. Not only would this behavior bring the university down to a very low level indeed, it implies the request was appropriate and valid. It is vitally important that a strong precedent be set against future requests of this ilk.

        2) It does nothing to combat the chilling and fear-inducing effect the request was intended to engender.

        To paraphrase a Republican motto: just say ‘no’.

      • Paul H.:

        Fie, Mr. Leavenworth. Please see my comment above to “Cyndy” regarding bad manners when commenting on blogs. They apply to you also, I am sorry to say.

        There is a clear distinction between stupidity and conservatism, Mr. Leavenworth. If you are unable to detect that difference, I would say it reflects more upon your intellectual shortcomings than whatever limitations you believe you see in those with whom you disagree.

    • Bill Robbins:

      Excessive delay and/or charging more than actual and reasonable costs is a felony according to WI statutes. So is refusal to respond. Just thought I’d point that out.

  • Rachel:

    I too have run across ALEC in my research and have attempted to investigate it’s role in federal policy formulation. It became clear to me immediately that my paper may attract their attention and that it would be misconstrued as an attack rather than a scholarly inquiry. I see now that I was right to worry about possible negative effects on my academic career and on academic freedom. Please continue to keep us all apprised of the the situation and don’t give in.

  • JD:

    Dear Professor Cronon,
    My colleagues and I in Arkansas thank you for fighting back. Please note, I did not use my university e-mail/server to send this note.

    • Big Green:

      Here, here! Much support from another AR citizen and academic (also not from my University account or office).

  • Tamara Caulkins:

    Thank you Bill Cronon for fighting back! You are quite right to think deeply about the implications of such a blatantly bullying request. One doesn’t choose these kinds of challenges–being a professor is already a full and intensely engaging profession in ways that most people don’t understand. Kudos to you for standing up to this abuse of the FOIA and for setting the request in context. I support you completely and hope for the best outcome. May your case will turn the tide against the misuse of government freedoms and protections that has been plaguing our country recently.

  • Laurie Fenner:

    Thank you, Mr. Cronin, for your thorough, objective and thoughtful postings. Keep up the good work!

  • BR:

    What I find interesting is the fact the policy at the university states and I quote from above …’ “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.”

    If this is the policy and I assume something similar would exist at all state agency, wouldn’t technically any invitations or discussions about campaigning, fundraisers, fund raising dinners, appearances to support someone who is being elected, even possibly information regarding debates, informing students, or assigning work related to writing papers, doing research or other things related to similar items… In fact an argument could be and probably will be that a school newspaper editor sending a e-mail to a student to cover an issue in the paper is supporting a political candidate… or at least someone could alleged this is the case. Would all of these be considered a violation of this policy? will professors be fired? Is someone monitoring the politicians, republicans & Democrats alike to make sure they are not abusing their state e-mail accounts if a similar policy exists? ….

    • Jim Palmer:

      The point is that state employees may not use state resources (including the time for which they are paid) to engage in political activity. This is a progressive reform–it keeps the likes of Tammany Hall from running an election campaign at public expense (e.g., using the police force to “get out the vote”). I suspect most governments have such legislation. As with all rules, the devil is in the details, but this is not a ridiculous rule. I think that what we need to do is support those unreasonably charged, not eliminate the rule that government resources cannot be used for political purposes.

      • Paul H.:

        Here here!

        • J. Roush:

          Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could learn more about the meeting between Scott Walker and Frank Luntz, which took place in the governor’s office recently? According to the governor’s gofer, Mr. Luntz was in town to discuss the state’s economy. I can assure you, Frank Luntz has no interest in the state’s economy as he is strictly a hired gun concerned with manipulating public opinion. If that’s not a misuse of state facilities, I don’t know what is.

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