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”

  • Wil Golden:

    [language removed]
    @wil: Abusive language and personal attacks violate the Terms of Use.

  • Robin Henry:

    While I can understand your frustration at what you see as an unfair and unwarranted personal attack, this is unfortunatelya side effect of FOIA. I am a librarian, so I see it like this. We strongly believe that freedom of speech and noncensorship is important. The side effect of this is that there are people who misuse their freedoms to indulge in pornagraphy and other destructive types of behavior. If we want to have the freedom to choose wisely, we have to allow other people the freedom to choose poorly. Otherwise, the government chooses for us, and none of us has a choice any more. As a public school employee, I, like you, understand that any parent or other tax payer has the right to request my email from my school account for any reason–or no reason. I have signed an Acceptable Use Policy, as I am sure you did, and I abide by it, as I am sure you do. The good news is that if you are as upstanding as you seem, and I have no reason to believe that you are not, there is nothing to be gained from an email search on your university account. The bad news is that in order for FOIA to work the way it should, we also have to put up with people using it in ways they shouldn’t. I have heard of teachers having their emails requested by parents with a grudge, and this is similar to what has happened to you. While it may not be what you would prefer, the ultimate outcome should serve to prove your integrity, and perhaps tarnish the requestors’. Freedom comes at a price, and life isn’t always fair.

  • Lawrance L. Thomas:

    [lengthy personal atatck removed]
    @lawrance: Abuse language and personal attacks violate the Terms of Service.

  • Mike Rhyner:

    Most people don’t require +5000 words to say they have nothing to hide, and they support open records laws.

    • Howard Kranz:

      The implication here is that anyone using a nuanced argument against a simplistic argument is automatically suspect. Please reconsider this line of thought.

  • GM Roper:

    [personal attack removed] As a former associate professor myself, I was smart enough to know that any thing I put out on the university system’s emails was fair game if requested. [removed] How sad that an educator doesn’t understand this basic tenet.

    @GM Sounds like you have valid viewpoints, but personal attacks agaianst commenters violate the terms of Service should not be interspersed. Please refrain.

    • Lambert:

      So I guess you did not bother to read the post. Prof. Cronon took great pains to point out that he has always separated his personal from his business emails.

  • Sollace Mitchell:

    Lost in the vital discussion of the use and abuse of the Open Records Law by the Wisconsin Republican Party is the ‘why’ behind the tactic of their request/demand. Notice that the story is now principally about the chill of intimidation directed at Professor Cronon in response to his March 15 blog post and subsequent NY Times op-ed piece.

    This tactic deflects from the fact that the Wisconsin Republican Party has not responded to any of the points Professor Cronon originally raised, regarding the shining progressive traditions of the GOP in Wisconsin, the tradition of civil cooperation between parties, and the practice of governmental transparency. Indeed, their request makes a mockery of that very practice.

    Insofar as FOIA, the Open Records Law, and academic freedom become the story, then the tactic succeeds – luckily for the back-room boys of the state’s once-Grand Old Party, since they are unable to address the reasonable, soberly-argued points that Professor Cronon presented to them.

    Wisconsin should be proud that at least one of its native sons is hewing to the state’s estimable practice of thoughtful, independent minded, civil political discourse.

  • Jon:

    The funny thing is this blog has now been passed around and even Slashdot’d as a direct result of their request. Thus once again the Streisand Effect has been triggered.

  • EverettRowdy:

    The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies…. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies.
    ~ Henry David Thoreau

  • One-Egg:

    I have a colleague at UW who is also a friend (this is, of course, common in academia). If I contact them using their UW address, it is quite common for me to ask about their family or include my own family news before turning to business; such friendliness is expected.

    From now on, I will have to rethink that habit. The Republicans have succeeded in creating precisely the chilling effect they desire. There will be no benefit to the people of Wisconsin, but there will certainly be harm to civilized discourse.

  • Pluto Animus:

    It’s instructive that Prof. Cronon’s supporters express themselves in positive, articulate tones, while his opponents freely use language that reveals what small-minded, hateful, dishonest fascists they are. It is rather helpful that both sides are so honest about themselves.

  • jon muggleston:

    thank you dr cronon. i wish this were the kind of world where the day is won by the articulate, the sincere, and the well-researched. too often, however, it appears that the field is taken by the fearmongers, the liars who lie biggest, and the purely machiavellian.

    it would do a great deal to alleviate my personal cynicism towards post industrial democracy if thompson withdraws his foia request against you.

    good luck.

  • Emerson North:

    What are you so afraid of, Professor? It’s about time we start demanding socialists like you quit teaching our kids to be rude and violent. Let’s face it, if you weren’t worried, you wouldn’t have wasted 5,000 words.

    • Andrew Adam:

      Sir – who is the rude and violent one in this situation. I suggest you look in the mirror. I don’t think anything that Prof. Cronon espoused suggests Socialism but rather espouses true democracy. Hypocricy on the other hand has been the way that the bought and paid for Republican leadership has tried to deal with the citizens of this great State. And before you label any “ism” as being a totally bad thing, I suggest you do your research and stop just listening to whatever talking head has told you what position to take. THANK YOU PROF. CRONON for being a light and a leader.

    • Nullifidian:

      @ Emerson North

      Suggesting that it takes a university professor to make kids rude and violent indicates that you’re even more detached from reality than one would assume by your calling Dr. Cronon a “socialist”.

    • webmaster:

      @emerson: Warning that all kinds of opinions are welcome here, but the Terms of Service require respectful, non-abusive language. Please refrain and restate your comment.

      Commenters, this thread is closed.

    • Richard Smoker:

      Dear Emerson North,
      Pardon the ad hominem attack but you are obviously a reality challenged TEAtard… Why not go back to watching Glen Beck reruns? You obviously lack the critical thinking skills required for academic debate. Now I feel dirty and some what more stupid for having lowered myself to your level.

  • Carol Hassemer:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! You’ve said it all and anything I write would be trite. I’m a proud UW grad and mother of UW grads. We all support you and the principles you uphold. May the University have your back.

  • Elizabeth Riley:

    Professor Cronon:

    This note is to thank you for your articulate and thorough analysis of the current problems in Wisconsin government. I appreciate your hard work, your scholarship, and the thoughtful way in which you present information. Your students are indeed lucky to have you as their professor.

    Elizabeth Riley
    Assistant Professor of Nursing
    The College of St. Scholastica

  • Dennis Allison:

    If the request is not withdrawn, it would seem appropriate for Professor Cronon to file an Open Records request using the same keywords augmented by his name and perhaps a few other keywords “university”, “wisconsin”, etc.).

  • Peter C. Patton, Ph.D.:

    Your blog defense is both gently understated and brilliant. If your adversaries enforce the State law they will violate the Federal law, and the latter trumps the former. The NYT Op Ed piece was not the issue, print media is already doomed; your blog was the problem. Nobody reads the NYT anymore, I use to read it every day but I haven’t spent a penny on it since the Jason Blair fiasco. It is the new electronic mass media that frightens your adversaries. Print news media frightened politicians when it was new as well, George III would have hanged Junius (Sir Philip Francis) for sedition if he had ever figured out who he was. In yet an earlier technology sea change, Martin Luther was just doing his job when he suggested debating his propositions; after all he was a professor of theology concerned with the faith, worship, and practice of the HRCAC. But he hadn’t imagined the effect of the somewhat earlier invention of moveable type. Within two weeks his propositions were printed and distributed in every language in Europe. When a political group cannot gainsay a critic, it must discredit him, if he cannot be discredited, it must ignore him, and if he refuses to be ignored, then he must be exiled or killed. Socrates and Jesus are history’s most quoted examples. If your adversaries persist I think your four prophecies will come true. I spent most of my academic career at UMinn. We struggled to move from one of the top 20 public research universities in the US to the rarified atmosphere of UW-Madison in the top five but never managed to do it. It is one thing for politicians to shoot themselves in the foot, but quite another to shoot themselves in the head.

  • Sheryl C of New Jersey:

    My contribution may be small, but they add up, and sounds like you’ll need it.

    “Thank you” is necessary but not sufficient.

  • M ducey:

    This is a great post, I would like to send it to colleagues at other universities but now I realize they might get in trouble since most of them are “official” email addresses…

    It seems to me that the republicans have set it up to win both ways. If he gives the emails they will quote mine it to make him sound like one of those anarchist socialists and if he doesn’t they will accuse him of hypocrisy since his original op ed criticized the GOP for withholding information and violating sunshine laws.

    Mike Ducey

  • This is a fascinating and not at all surprising development, and to touch on the thought in the opening of William Cronon’s post regarding scholar as citizen, we thought an apt bit of supplemental reading could be found here:

    http://grippinglyauthentic.com/2009/10/24/a-reasonable-course-of-action/

    Thomas Schwandt, professor and Educational Psychology Department Chair at the University of Illinois, published a paper called Educating for Intelligent Belief in Evaluation, that considers the importance not only of critical thinking in both the university and public setting, but addresses aspects of our culture that seek to undermine that importance. You can link to his paper from the web address above.

  • j. fleming:

    i should add that the professor’s appeal is not an appeal to human decency, as the silly reference to robert welsh is intended to convey, but an appeal for material aid in the form of pro-bono legal representation. he wants to fluff himself up into an a-list martyr-hero to attract activist lawyers to the cause of delaying or voiding the foia request.

    • plastic899:

      j fleming:

      Prof. C’s legal counsel is the uni lawyers. When involved in a legal pickle, all lawyers will tell the client (in this case Cronon) to be quiet, the more you say, the more you can damage yourself.

      The only circumstance in which Prof. C might need to hire his own attorneys, as opposed to just using the university’s, is if there is a potential conflict of interest between Cronon and the university. (Attorneys for the uni can’t represent Cronon if there’s a conflict of interest.) Typically this would arise if the university thinks there may be potential liability against the university arising out of Cronon’s conduct if the conduct is beyond the legitimate scope of his duties as a uni employee. Or, it might just be a situation where the university thinks the employee did something very embarassing and they want to be able to have their attorneys disavow the conduct. If the uni’s attorney needs to point the finger at Cronon, or even thinks that might be a possibility, then Cronon might need his own attorney who is independent from the university.

    • Grippus:

      I am amazed that you can speak with Scott Walker’s [..]

    • Jim Hillhouse:

      That might be one way to read this post…but not a very insightful or accurate one. In fact, one would have to wonder as to how else your lack of reading comprehension in general and your partisan viewpoint in particular distort your worldview? Anyone reading your comment can bear witness to the fact that ascendent elements within the GOP, who are causing the train to tip perilously close to derailment, have the mindset of, “It’s our way or the highway”. In fact, with what I’ve seen from the GOP in the last year, I better understand what Reagan Democrats meant when they stated that they didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left them.

      This open records request is completely inappropriate given its political goals. The most appropriate response by the University would be to take inspiration from Brig. Gen. Anthony Clement “Nuts” McAuliffe, who commanded 101st Airborne in Bastogne during in the Battle of Bulge. When asked by the Germans to surrender, McAuliffe replied, “Nuts!”

      In the spirit of full-disclosure, I am a life-long Republican and have worked as a volunteer on three Republican presidential campaigns.

      • j. fleming:

        we’re all left questioning: what is this partisan viewpoint which you claim is distorting my worldview?

        i didn’t claim any insight. my assessment of the professor’s leavings here and at the new york times don’t require it. he is transparent and what i noted is apparent.

        i didn’t however stake any partisan claims, so we’re all left questioning: what is this partisan viewpoint which you claim is distorting my worldview?

        it couldn’t be that you have simply inferred a “partisan viewpoint” from the single fact that the professor’s nonsense about shadowy conspirators pulling strings struck me as dishonest and stupid. i could be of either party or no party at all and hold that view. surely a staunch and completely authentic republican such as yourself would agree.

  • Amy Leverson:

    Ha – lets see what the politicians in ALEC have to say about their own requests regarding FOIA for those that have open records laws in their state!

  • Nikita:

    I do not see my first posting so I will assume that there must have been an error with the first post. The only other alternative is that the very man who complains about being silenced silences others when they produce logical arguments that he disagrees with.

    First, I would like to say that the request for your emails is stupid (I did not mention this in my initial response). Second, I would like to say I respect your work as an environmental historian (something I also did not mention in my previous post).

    That said, you are misrepresenting some key facts in your story.

    1. Let’s start with Wisc Stat 19.32(2). Your worries about the secrecy of other academics’ scholarly pursuits being revealed before publication may be covered under one of the listed exceptions to 19.32(2). Those exceptions are listed in the second part of subsection 2. Be fair and balanced when you present your argument.

    2. U.S.C. § 1232(g) covers FERPA. You did not post a link to the actual statute, but an actual reading of it reveals that the it has exceptions that allow for the release of student records under certain circumstances. In other words, the law is not as clear-cut in favor of your position as you present it to be. Some require consent others do not. Again, be fair and balanced in presenting your case.

    3. The only search item that might lead to student records would be “Republican.” A number of search strategies could be used to ensure that non-relevant emails that would invade student privacy or the future scholarship of other academics is not revealed. Or why not just tell them why searching the term Republican alone is problematic and ask them to refine their request. Why not just vindicate yourself and make them look like fools? Point this out in your argument to be fair and balanced. The way you wrote your blog makes it appear as though all the search words are troubling and there is no easy solution to your predicament. Be fair and balanced.

    4. My main point of my first reply had to do with your use of the term “scholar.” This is a term that historians like to use to afford themselves academic authority in areas in which they have no degree or training (usually areas of activism). Your work on environmental history, which is wonderful, is scholarship; you are without a doubt a history scholar. But you, and every other PhD abuse your professional title when you purport yourselves to be “scholars” of areas in which you have no real training or degree. Doing so dupes people into thinking that you are an authority on the subject and this is an abuse of your Phd. Mathematicians generally do not go around calling themselves “scholars” when they go on their political rants, so why should Professors in humanities and social sciences. Your activist interests are private pursuits and you should not use your unrelated professional title to give you authority on those subjects

    5. In short, the request for emails is absolutely stupid and a hardball politics tactic, but be fair and reasonable when you present your argument. Finally, I propose you change your blog to Citizen William Cronon. You are a scholar of history not a scholar of activism and political thought.

    • plastic899:

      ooof Nikita, brutal but accurate criticism directed at Prof. C!

      Yes I think you are correct–suddenly the prof or someone on his behalf is “moderating” posts that question his position.

      I agree with you the Repub request is stupid but only if you believe there’s no smoking gun in the emails. It’s relatively no cost for the Repubs to do this, therefore a smart political tactic–a roll of the dice.

      Methinks there may be something of a “personal nature” on that email server that the prof is desperately trying to prevent disclosure of.

      This is all a big smoke screen.

      All Prof. C. needed to do is say: “The university received this request for my emails from the Republicans, it’s been sent over to legal counsel’s office, we think it’s a huge waste of time and money, a fishing expedition, I’m letting the lawyers handle it, nothing to see here, move along.”

      Why the smoke screen? Why the angst?

      This type of reaction from a public figure caught up in a controversy typically precedes the more restrained announcement of “Taking a leave of absence/resigning his position for personal reasons”‘

      We will see how far this goes.

      Wisconsin political bickering is very entertaining for the civilized parts of the country.

      Thanks guys.

      • webmaster:

        @plastic899: Your email address is bouncing so I can’t contact you directly. Please be aware that due to the frequency alone of your comments, not the content, they are getting automatically held for moderation. A hallmark of spam is frequency of post, and the software is doing its job. I apologize for these delays, and will clear you from moderation as soon as I can.

      • Grippus:

        [webmaster 5:30pm obscenities redacted] I can see why you would come to their aid. But you should separate your political and professional lives. Don’t feel obligated to defend them [more obscenities redacted].

        • webmaster:

          @Grippus: Unfortunately, our spam software is marking your comments as spam since you add obscenities into what otherwise might be allowable responses. Please, commenters, keep it clean and civil.

    • Sal:

      I don’t think you understand what academic and scholarly research really means. Let’s say an electrical engineering professor who did his doctoral dissertation on computer processor design and optimization started his own lab working on the same problem, only later to realize that cooling devices was a major challenge. He then branches off his original research topic and starts doing heat/mass transfer research. Would you then say, “Dr. X, don’t call yourself a scholar of heat/mass transfer. You are only a processor design scholar”? That would be absurd, especially, if the hypothetical professor X’s research turned an interesting breakthrough in cooling computer processosr and allowing for faster processors.The same concept applies to a history professor who takes an interest in the history of a rather obscure political organization and its contributions to politics and activism. Especially when his research adheres to scholarly standards in the field.

      • ButterfylAngelBlue:

        First of all, thank you Prof. Cronon. I would not want people to go into my e-mails for any old reason, take what I’ve written, and interpret it whatever way they like to damage my reputation. People send me e-mails believing that these communications are private, as I do when I send e-mails to others. We aren’t sending anything that people couldn’t see, but the interpretation of them could be wildly inaccurate.

        Secondly, I have issue with the “he’s just an environmental historian” argument. As a history grad student myself, I can ASSURE you that our education is well-rounded. While we each find our own little interests which we focus much of our time on, we are challenged by our professors to expand our horizons. We must have minor fields in other studies in history. It might be hard for a medivalist to do local American history (as my friend is discovering), but it is important for every historian to have a well-rounded historical perspective from which to base their own academic thinking.

        I don’t know if you’ve thought about it but environmental history has always been closely linked to politics, as the environment has closely been related to politics and how people interact with it and each other in regards to it. So just because he’s officially an environmental historian does NOT mean that he isn’t doing scholarly work in another field of history.

        Also, at UW-Madison there are strong ties between the history and political science departments. I should know, as I got a BA in both. It’s hard to learn one without the other. Politics permeates our history…heck, it often CREATES our history. His work in professional organizations also require him to look into other fields of history and, yes, politics.

        Don’t hate on the guy for wanting to do his job, which is to teach and study history. He is studying how history is currently being written and discussing it with others in his field. This discussion is leading to learning about the past, present, and potential affects for the future. I would not want to stop the discussion, even if I disagree with it. It’s important that things are discussed, truths are learned, and the best path for ALL of us is laid before us. There’s nothing in my e-mails that couldn’t be shared with everyone here. But SHOULD they? Would you want YOURS to be on display for us to analyze and interpret as we please? Would you want your colleagues to be questioned for what they wrote to you in private? Prof. Cronon clearly states that he knows the UW’s e-mail rules and sticks to them. The e-mails uncovered will not violate them. So why go digging? To discredit an academic? To spark a debate on what’s private and what’s public knowledge? To question what our rights are as people in this great state in regards to job security, privacy, welfare, education?

        We’ve forgotten what’s important in all of this debate – WHAT IS RIGHT, what is right for us, for our neighbors, for our fellow Wisconsinites and Americans. We’ve forgotten how to talk as civilized people and compromise. No one all-out wins, but more importantly, no one all-out loses. We all share, we all gain, we all prosper. We should be focusing more on the problems of health care, Wall Street, and balancing a government budget without gouging any single group and hurting the future of our kids and our country than on the partisan politicking that has been happening these last few months. Each side has done bad things, each side has done good things. No one is entirely right or entirely wrong. We need to question our leaders, let them know when they are doing things we like and things we don’t like. Prof. Cronon took one of those questions into the bloggosphere and is now being personally and professionally attacked for it. He responded to that attack via the bloggosphere. Now it’s up to the law to decided what is the truth. Hopefully they will.

  • plastic899:

    “I want to close by repeating that I support the Open Records Law ”

    You don’t have to support it, Prof. C.

    Just comply with it.

    • B Lumos:

      So, in other words, “Hey Cronon, STFU & hand it over”

      Do yourself a service and take a closer look at the legal conflict between this and FERPA before you suggest someone simply comply without consideration.

      • dot tilde dot:

        you are adressing the wrong individual.

        and think of rephrasing your demand in a more respectful way, that might help your cause.

        .~.

        • B Lumos:

          I am most certainly addressing the correct person and think you have missed the intent behind the bluntness of my re-phrasing. Re-consider the post, my reaction and response, then have moment to consume it. You’ve overlooked something the first time around.

  • plastic899:

    “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.”

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

    Rather shameless demagoguery, Prof. C. But you know how to play to your audience. They eat this stuff up.

    (But you know better, don’t you?)

    • Ron Edge:

      Embarrassing, today, to see the Party of Goldwater descend into such tactics. Plastic899:
      Would you want strangers who have a stated anger toward you to pour over your private
      communications? Of course not. And I would support any action you took to prevent that.

      “Something to hide”? Not at all, it’s shameful behavior by dishonorable people.

    • Steve B.:

      “What Does Bill Cronon Have to Hide?”

      Doesn’t matter. It’s completely irrelevant to the underlying question, which is why the FOIA request was made in the first place.

      I think a more interesting question is who will be first to file an FOIA request against Governor Walker and Republican congress members with the search terms “ALEC” and “American Legislative Exchange Council ” in it? Wonder if they have something to hide?

  • plastic899:

    Actually Prof. C. it looks like there’s a rather large loophole/exception in the disclosure law which you should be able to take advantage of:

    ***
    “Record” does not include drafts, notes, preliminary computations and like materials prepared for the originators personal use or prepared by the originator in the name of a person for whom the originator is working; materials which are purely the personal property of the custodian and have no relation to his or her office; materials to which access is limited by copyright, patent or bequest; and published materials in the possession of an authority other than a public library which are available for sale, or which are available for inspection at a public library. 19.32(2).
    ***

    So, any of the Prof.’s emails which arguably can be considered to be “drafts/notes/preliminary” versions of whatever he published, you know before he edited out the scurrilous references to Scott Walker and the Republicans (j/k), can probably be at least tied up in litigation for several years.

    Hey keep it goin prof., no doubt you are getting great publicity, will get a book deal, lecture fees are skyrocketing, see ya on Oprah.

    • Andrew_in_NH:

      Plastic, I urge you to think again about your doubtless well-intentioned thoughts concerning protection of parties other than the professor if these e-mails were all to be released.

      The professor will not be the one who selects or turns over any set of e-mails should any of them be released. He will not have any voice in the selection process. As a result, his concerns about accidental release of material that is not linked in any way to the suspected reasons for the request are quite understandable.

      As others have observed, history is not a tightly compartmentalized are of study. Even if environmental history were his only focus, his studies, teaching, and research would have to include significant understanding of the political climate. If he has even a hint of human curiosity, his understanding of political discourse in the US is likely to be both scholarly and active (in the sense that the topic is always relevant and thus deserving of attention). Arguing that he is unqualified to have insights that are worth sharing, and that his opinions represent amateur meddling in the affairs of those who are better informed, is absurd. Sadly, absurdity has become more and more common in political discourse over the last thirty-plus years.

  • Matt Carlsen:

    Streisand Effect [..]
    Heard of it?
    you soon will :)

    [webmaster 8:33am obscenties removed] scum

  • Amazing. The more one digs into the political [often non-]science of your almost great country the more one despairs as to the shennanigans embraced by the conservatives. It is frightening that under this current administration such ramapant attempts to curtail free expression and opinion through subterranean means is possible at all. One expects this [well not really] in the old Soviet Union but today’s America. Speechless. [pun intended]

  • Anonymous:

    I would like to start by suggesting we reverse the panopticon here. It has been shown time and again that Anonymity is a great power. Those who feel they are anonymous make more outrageous claims and sharper attacks against others than someone who places his or her name on the line.

    As such, I’m going to be publishing here (and elsewhere), some of the personal information I have discovered about Stephan Thompson:

    Name: Stephan Thompson
    Mugshot: http://a2.twimg.com/profile_images/521454498/facebook_pic_bigger.jpg
    Current Town: Pewaukee
    Education:
    BA in Political Science from Carrol College

    Employment:
    Deputy Campaign Manager
    Friends of Scott Walker
    January 2010 – December 2010 (1 year)

    Consultant
    Arrowhead Strategies, LLC
    January 2009 – December 2009 (1 year)

    Social media:
    Twitter – smthomps (private)
    Klout – http://klout.com/smthomps

    DOX pastebin (set to autodestruct in 1 month): http://pastebin.com/LrV2c4Ai

  • j. fleming:

    i have “kochtopus” fatigue. the genre of activist journalism which deals with conspiracy theories which posit that everybody who disagrees with the progressive faith is an automaton programmed by a shadowy elite has been popular recently. so i’m weary to parse through and point out every question-begging insinuation in the professor’s contribution to such nonsense.

    there are many in the luridly titled, “who’s really behind recent republican legislation?” leaving the title aside (“who really brought down wtc7?” a similarly-minded person might similarly ask), the professor sends inquiring minds to two admittedly leftwing encyclopedia-style repositories of oppo dirt on conservative groups and individuals. why? he explains, “for obvious reasons, many of these groups prefer not to be monitored very closely.” what are these reasons? obvious to who? why does the professor withhold from us his insight into the operative preferences of those who prefer to work from the shadows? there is nothing dry about this language. there is also nothing truthful in the insinuation. the professor himself links to the ALEC website where they are pleased as punch to spill the beans on all of their nefarious plans. he even attempts to cash in on their openness in the post above to lend toward the notion that his ersatz “expose” had no agenda noticeable to anyone. what a shock that openness must come to those who caught the professor’s hint that they lurk in shadows because their activities are of a character averse to sunlight.

    more often than not, interest groups are obscure, and they are nearly always obscure by default rather than design. that is, until they are plucked from obscurity and employed as a character in some grand narrative. that is all that has happened here. the professor’s too-ready insistence that he was writing from scholarly interest reeks of horseshit and dirty socks. his insistence in dusting off old tropes about the legendary scourge of “mccarthyism” yields unintentional ironies. here, the professor was doing some mccarthyizin’ of his own; researching and cataloging a shadowy malefactor which operates, deviously, under the guise of constitutionally protected issue advocacy, and drawing to it and from it linkages to individuals who were, until these revelations, only suspected to be at war with our precious fluids. the linkages are like a web. but a totally different kind of web from the infamous “red web” of the john birch society. this web is a totally different, not-at-all-paranoid-or-antipluralistic web. and so are sourcewatch and rightwingwatch, completely different from the bircherite “red web”.

    by the by, did you ever hear of the center for media and democracy? must be because they, for obvious reasons, seek to conceal themselves. did you know that they advocate for policies which are distasteful to many americans? and they accept donations from other groups which you may also be unfamiliar with and pursue similar ideological agendas (cue theremin).

    in any case, stinkier than the original article by far is the screeching hypocrisy of the appeal left above. the professor makes a risible attempt to cast his contribution to the kochtopus conspiracy mindset as a work of dry scholarship and, from that footing, cites a privilege of his own imaging which protects the emails of university employees. sorry to burst this delusion, but there is nothing which transpires in the office of a university professor which bears any moral resemblance to what priests, doctors or lawyers are bound to. the professor is smart enough to recognize what the requester is after; he is probably pumping recall petition chain-mails through his office computer and his resistance to comply with the FOIA request does lend weight to such suspicions and the whole spectacle casts him with the appearance of a hypocrite who believes himself entitled to attack the motives and situatedness of others without having to endure the same sort of examination.

    he’s also smart enough to recognize that he has no way out of this scrutiny he’s brought upon himself but to pull on his “academic freedom” underoos, wrap his moral indignation around him like a cape and try to fly out on a gust of hot air.

  • Bill Robbins:

    Professor Cronon, I agree with your conclusions regarding threats to academic freedom and the other important issues. To paraphrase Congressman Barney Frank, you’re trying to have a conversation with a dining room table. The response from the Republican Party starts out with a statement accusing you of demanding that they withdraw their request. You didn’t demand anything, rather the Republicans can be expected to distort anything and everything you say that’s not official correspondence.

    You are probably aware of the Wisconsin statutes regarding your rights and responsibilities when you are requested to provide records and your rights that protect public employees from retaliation or harrassment by legislative officials. These public employee protections do not protect you from harrassment by members outside the sphere of public officials. This suggests a reson that the FOI request originated in the Republican Party organization, a non-public entity, rather than from a legislator or a public employee.

    I urge you to review the Wisconsin statutes, particulary section 230, which provides specific protection from anything that violates your 1st Amendment rights. Other sections describe your responsibilities when responding to a FOI request. There are specific exclusions that require you to protect others’ privacy rights, for example. The narrow list of excluded information is spelled out in the statutes. You must redact certain personal identification information, but this does not permit you to exclude a whole document simply because it contains private information. You are not required to provide unrelated documents. In this case, the request is ambiguous. Email about the Union Army is an example. You probably aren’t required to provide this record, but you might need to explain such decisions or request a clarification in order to resolve such ambiguities. Although the request implies that records about the Union Army don’t meet the requestors intent, it’s best to consult someone more knowledable about FOI requests.

    You, as a public employee (as I interpret the statutory definition), are protected from retaliation and harrassment in several ways by law. Similarly, the statutes require you to protect the privacy and rights of others.

    I strongly urge you to retain legal counsel to ensure that your response is complete and compliant with both the spirit of the sunshine laws and the related Wisconsin statutes. Your suggestion to reexamine the implications of the request from the Republican party was certain to fall on deaf ears. This posting was, however, critically important information for the rest of us. Please continue.

    This blatent political attack on academic freedom and the subsequent events is already historically important. This is now about every academic institution in the United States.

    We, the people, need your strength and wisdom to help us protect academic freedom for everyone. We’re all in this together.

    Thank you so much.

    • plastic899:

      Bill Robbins:

      You are mistaken as to the procedures involved with one of these requests. The request was directed to the University of Wisconsin, not to Prof. Cronon. The University is the public entity and is clearly subject to the disclosure law. Any emails generated by the Prof. during the course of his employment for the University are presumably archived on the University email system/server in accordance with the University’s document retention policy. I would guess they probably keep old emails archived for at least a few years. The University has rendered a public statement on its website saying it recognizes its obligation to comply with the law. They will have to comply with the disclosure request but they can request 25 cents a page in copying fees. There are exceptions such as personal information of students and those emails can be excluded or identifying information redacted out of the documents.

      We all know that’s not what the rebpublicans are after though. And Prof. C. knows that, too.

      I associate a panicked need to maintain secrecy of government documents with the Nixon Administration and Watergate. Maybe you are too young to remember that, but Prof. Cronon surely isn’t. The emails are government documents.

      If there is something in there that reflects negatively on Prof. Cronon his best approach is to get out in front of it rather than to fight this losing battle, it is just making him look Nixonian in the extreme.

      • Ian:

        Stephan Thompson – is that you?

      • Bill Robbins:

        I understand the obligation to respond to the records request. Professor Cronon reinforces this point in his blog entry. The Republican Party response indicates that they may have interpreted his statements as a refusal to comply with the request. This is clearly not the case. I suspect that this is your interpretation, too, since you reference “a panicked need…”

        Professor Cronon made no such statement that he planned to refuse to comply with the record request. On the contrary, he indicated that the sunshine laws would be honored. Indeed, the UW administrators have a responsibility to redact certain personal and private information about students and a narrow list of exceptions as specified in the statutes.

        I am older than Professor Cronon. As a youngster, Joseph McCarthy was my Senator, I clearly remember the controversy and the shame that his witch hunts brought to Wisconsinites. Today, Walker’s actions have widened the divide and embarrassed Wisconsinites once again. Professor Cronon simply suggested some considerations that the requestor (and the public) should think about.

  • Mary Charlotte:

    Thank you, Professor Cronon. I will be following your blog from now on.
    Perhaps you and other like-minded professors will form a movement (using your private email addresses) against today’s so-called conservatives and their mad excesses; perhaps you can have a greater number of spokespeople on TV and radio; perhaps we can all join with you to save our nation from the Republicans, whose goals seem to be 1) to move wealth from the poor to the rich; 2) to maximize corporate profits, whatever the cost to our soils, rivers, oceans, and air; and 3) to destroy all democratic and grass-roots movements through intimidation and expensive PR campaigns, and whatever tactics they deem useful; 4) to divide people from one another who would otherwise have a great deal in common–parents, middle-class and working-class people, etc.–by throwing around accusatory terms like “elitist” to separate top-notch thinkers, like Prof. Cronon, from the people they champion. The real arrogant class running this nation are Karl Rove and the heads of the Fortune 500, who truly care nothing for our values, such as clean water and food, good schools, and some measure of fairness and justice for ordinary people.

  • Big Al:

    If you do in fact have to publish your emails I think it would be extremely important to not just give them to the republican party but mirror them in a torrent file or on your U of Wisconsin server space so they can be publicly accessible to all who are interested. We are in the era of massive information warfare and nothing is a stronger weapon than exclusive rights to some bit of info. The holder of that info can control what’s given to the public and what isn’t. S/he can tweak contexts to match the narrative and basically bend whatever it is you have written to point towards the desired outcome.

    If everybody has access to the same docs you will have an army of willing infowarriors sifting through the data you were forced to provide, verifying, countering and balancing the conclusions the people who requested the info are going to inevitably make with it.

    I wish you the best of luck and I hope you heed my advise and make the docs viewable to all if they are forced to be given to the few who seem to be out to ruin you.

    • adelady:

      Big Al – It’s not about “ruining” anyone, necessarily. Obviously the fishing expedition is hoping for some startling revelation that the Prof or someone he talks to is some kind of radical/ subversive/ undesirable. But that’s mainly wishful thinking and we can’t be sure that someone in the requesting office doesn’t sincerely believe that there really is ‘something’ there worth finding and amenable to twisting in the public’s mind.

      The truly ruinous aspect of this is the diversion of university resources and the professor’s time in reading and sorting and classifying emails. The one and only good thing about this request is that it covers only the period from Jan 1. Going through one by one and identifying those that do contain the items sought. Then identifying student correspondence, selection and job reference correspondence, other committee work subject to confidentiality restrictions, and on and on and on within that set.

      And then, documenting the reasons and the statutory basis for withholding every. single. one. of the items thus identified.

      • plastic899:

        adelady:

        That’s not how it will work.

        The republicans provided “key words” because all the emails are stored electronically on the U. server. These email programs have a sort/find function like a word processing program does. All that needs to be done is an IT guy put in the key words and the system can pull up the relevant emails containing those key words virtually instantaneously. This is over a three month period and I can’t imagine there would be more than a couple of thousand relevant emails, most likely, it will probably be a couple or maybe a few dozen emails which contain the keywords during the relevant time period (Jan – march 2011).

        At that point Prof. Cronon will probably meet with university legal counsel and review the emails. Most of them will probably be random. I doubt the university is going to make a legal fight out of this unless there’s something really embarrassing in there. The only thing the Prof. needs to worry about is if there’s something really embarrassing like (hypothetically): “LOL this will really scr*w Scott Walker when I get it published!” or something like that.

        But, won’t that kind of stuff, if it exists, make Cronon an even bigger hero in Wisconsin?

        • Graphene:

          Plastic –

          Obviously, you are correct that using search utilities on the dataset in question will quickly yield the subset of emails outlined in Mr. Thompson’s email request, but Adelady still has a valid point. If that were the only filtering that needed to be done, we’re still talking use of university resources – network administrator time to pull up the archives and system processing cycles to perform the search requests. While not enormous, these are still expenditures of public resources which, at the very least, should be included in the cost of Mr. Thompson’s request.

          However, a far more resource-intensive activity must necessarily follow, and I think this is what Adelady was really driving at. After the search is complete, the professor and co.will have to sit down and manually read through each and every single email to sort out which are protected student communication, which are “maybe protected” professional group communication, etc. As Adelady said:

          “[…] identifying student correspondence, selection and job reference correspondence, other committee work subject to confidentiality restrictions, and on and on and on within that set.
          And then, documenting the reasons and the statutory basis for withholding every. single. one. of the items thus identified.”

          This manual human filtering and documentation of reasoning and statutory basis is where the bulk of the time cost will come in. I would imagine, considering the volume of the dataset and the breadth of the filter terms that that cost could be substantial. Especially if, as you posit, the professor will then have to “sit with university legal counsel.” Surely you must agree that University resources are precious, and that utilizing them in this manner is suboptimal at best, regardless of the intentions of Mr. Thompson OR of Prof. Cronon. Again, at the very least, the University, if it does comply at any level, should be compensated a substantial amount by Mr. Thompson for the use of computing resources, administrator time, legal resources, and the time required for sifting through the data to ensure that student privacy and the privacy of other non-involved parties is adequately protected. Wouldn’t you agree?

    • plastic899:

      Big Al:

      I think the University should put the non-confidential part of the emails up publicly just like you say, but right now, and not wait for court actions. The longer legal battle this is drawn out, the more vulnerable Prof. Cronon is. He makes himself the issue by keeping the focus on this battle. Prof. Cronon is not looking too good by claiming to stand up for “academic freedom.” Academic freedom supports the release of the emails, not fighting against their release.

      I would guess that there’s some embarrassing material somewhere in some of those emails, might not have anything to do with Wisconsin politics at all, though, but Prof. C. doesn’t want it released for personal reasons, not professional reasons.

      Who knows what it might be? Have any of you folks ever received or forwarded a naughty email or something containing something inappropriate, like an ethnic joke etc.? Is it possible in three months time that the disclosure is sought for, Prof. C. might have used his U. account for purely personal business of some kind? Something relatively innocuous but would be embarrassing if publicly disclosed? I’m not saying this is the case, it’s all speculation, but Prof. C’s objections sure raise red flags.

      • jz:

        Actually, while I have received some mildly questionable emails, probably less than a half dozen, I do not forward them to anybody.

      • Ron Edge:

        As you know, 889, all this is to silence the critics: If they win, good; If they lose, fine…
        there probably won’t be a next time.

        This exercise is. solely, to avoid answering the points raised.

      • Stephen Moss:

        Why are you hiding behind plastic 899 ?

      • John M:

        I find it fairly preposterous to consider it an example of academic freedom to release the e-mails. I think the professor makes important points considering the compromise of the private business and correspondence of professional associations, colleagues and students, none of which is the business of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, or anyone else, for that matter, and is all certainly a reasonable use of his .edu e-mail account. Yes, he is a “government employee,” but he’s not a government official. It may be unfortunate that the law is written as it seems to be, but FOIA and Open Records concepts are intended to enable citizens to find out information about government officials and the conduct of governmental affairs, not to enable politically motivated fishing expeditions of university professors. If he worked at Yale, or Marquette, for instance, this would not be possible, and just because it seems to be technically legal does not make it right.

      • G. Ode:

        Plastic:
        Do not ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.
        In short, how about we all see your private emails as well? I mean, if you have nothing to hide…

  • Mike Dockry:

    Thank you Professor Cronon for your thoughtful framing of our current problems in Wisconsin. Your dedication to high quality scholarship and the study of history enriches us all. Your words will help our state pull out of these dark and divisive times. Keep telling stories about stories; we need them now more than ever.

  • Greg Vitercik:

    Professor Cronon, thank you for offering an example of what academia at its finest can offer the nation in a very difficult time. The annoyance of this vindictive nonsense may be intense, but it will pass. You will emerge with honor for having served the truth. Your students are fortunate to learn from you, and more important, to see you as an example.

  • Tamara Johnson:

    I too am the victim of a Republican public records request. I am the president of a WEAC local. The person that requested my emails lives in Oak Creek Wisconsin, which is about 40 miles outside of the school district in which I teach, so this person is not a resident. I know that this has been done to intimidate me, just like the calls from Mark Belling to my superintendent are supposed to intimate her. I refuse to be bullied into giving up my first amendment rights and doing my job, and I would urge all of those who receive these requests to wear them like a badge of honor. Professor Cronon was right to use the Joe McCarthy analogy. These people think that they can make up information and controversies and that people will believe them. They will suffer the same fate that McCarthy did. The more that the populace exposes these phonies for what they are, the more that the silent majority will get activated. These people have actually done a great service to good governance because they have motivated the apathetic “identity” voters into actually thinking about the little that the Republican party has done for them. Having voters think before pulling the lever will be the Republicans undoing.

    Tamara Johnson
    NBCT

    • Greg Vitercik:

      It saddens me so deeply that this is the thanks you get for dedicating your life to teaching your community’s children. I can’t understand how anyone could have any other feeling than the deepest gratitude for that work. I grew up in Wisconsin but live in Vermont now. I was so impressed with our local school when our daughter started there that I served on the school board for 6 years just to do whatever I could to help them with their tremendous work. It’s called a community school, and it is just that, with almost universal community support. I hope you know – and get explicit confirmation – that most parents probably feel the way I do.

  • Debra:

    I want to first thank you for your original post. It answered quite a few questions for me. I firmly stand behind the professor’s reasons for the original post and for his stand against what totally looks like a political response. Our government should never use laws that were passed for good reasons as weapons against us. Talk about overreach and hubris. Only two months into the term and the GOP has decided to go all in and could care less who knows.

  • I read the part about FERPA and had to remind myself to breath again — holy cow, how could I have forgottent THAT one? As much as I admire this carefully reasoned and presented post, I think that point deserved greater emphasis. To comply with Thompson’s FOI “request” would expose the university to the possibility of ruinous lawsuits. But all most people will see is an attempt to “avoid telling the truth” — a grotesque travesty of the facts, but who trucks in truth or facts these days when knee-jerk impressions are so easy to manipulate?

    My compliments to Prof. Cronon for his fine work here.

  • tmaxPA:

    Make no mistake, professor. They are not seeking to intimidate you; they are seeking to eliminate you as a political ‘enemy’, which you now are, regardless of how ‘centrist’ you believe you may be or have been. These are not uncertain people who simply might try to influence things: these are very powerful people who are very used to manipulating things. The odds are very good that you will be unemployed in the near future: there is going to be something in those emails they can blow up out of proportion to discredit you. Hell, they will have the Wisconsin Legislator write a law just to have a reason to fire you, if necessary. And don’t be too sure your options will be as open as you believe. The world of private education is even more anxious to accommodate the rich and powerful than the rapidly dwindling world of public education.

  • William J. Daugherty, PhD:

    As a tenured professor of government, I am appalled at the Republican Party of Wisconsin. In addition to other concerns registered in this blog, I have on other (pertinent, I trust) question: why is it that the Republicans, who tout themselves as the party of patriotism and American values, have since 2001 been the party to subvert those American and patriotic values? (If it matters, I am, like Professor Cronon, an independent centrist.)

    • Hedges Reader:

      Because what was once a party concerned with governing the republic has become an ur-fascist alliance between fantasy-dwelling ideologues and machiavellian monopolists. And together, they have created an idea-virus of anger against all form of governance that gives the terrified masses something easy to hate – instead of confusing them with the details about globalization and hostage-state-sponsored global corporate welfare that really explain why life is getting increasingly painful and insecure for them. This is the thing that has gripped the Republican Party – and it offers much more visceral oomph than reasoned analysis does. It sells. We lose.

    • Ron Edge:

      Answer: The Conservative Party’s leaders have been co-opted by power and money:
      Neo-Cons are in charge now. Us “Paleo-Cons” (D. Cheney) are through….

      My father’s political motto was: “There are two kinds of people in the world: Democrats
      and SOB’s. (BTW: He meant the WHOLE “world”. “But, Dad”, I’d protest to no avail: The
      “whole world”, it was. I was glad that I never had to face him when I switched to Goldwater
      in ’64. But, that’s all gone now, Dr. Daugherty: The Walkers, and worse, are in ascendency
      and I can envision no scenario, short of armed revolution, that displaces them, so strong
      is the strength, attraction of “power and (great wealth)”.

  • Brad Genario:

    You say in your article, “The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect.”
    The unions showed none of this. They cried like a bunch of petulent children who didn’t get their way after their party was beat in fair elections. Their senators used tactics like skipping town, abdicating their elected duties in order to twart the will of the electorate. I didn’t see you criticize any of this in your article which makes you partisan. I believe the Republicans are testing your theory about how open and transparent you really are and as a public employee, you and the University should be as transparent and open as possible. Do I approve of these tactics? No, I think it’s twisting the laws to suit a political party but Democrats have been playing these games for 20 years against Republicans. Here’s the most recent go at it. http://politifi.com/news/DNC-Files-FOIA-Requests-With-Pentagon-for-Info-on-GOP-2012-Hopefuls-1267090.html
    So much for neighborliness and mutual respect.

    • J. Roush:

      I followed this link and found the story to be of very limited relevance. In the example you offer, the Democratic National Committee has requested information about public figures who have indicated they are considering running for president in 2012. In what was is this equivalent to a professor at a public university publishing his research on current events? I fail to see any linkage beyond the fact that a political organization filed a request for public records. And we all know that if the Pentagon does release anything, it will be heavily redacted.

      I am a partisan, unlike Professor Cronon, and therefore have no problem whatsoever in calling BS on your partisan nonsense.

    • B Lumos:

      This is a fallacious argument and completely out of bounds from this discussion. Presenting your opinioned case amounts to essentially discrediting the narrative at hand by way of unrelated omission – just because the Prof didn’t talk about your Union/Democratic conspirators doesn’t mean the events occurring with the Wis. Republicans are suddenly untrue or of less merit. Why? Because he WASN’T talking about your Union/Democratic conspirators, he was ONLY talking about the Wis. Republicans and the scope of events at hand.

      Your actions are akin to discrediting a UN council investigation on the horrors of Libya by screaming they’re biased because they’ve said nothing about the horrors of Katrina. Or more accurately, someone criticizes, “Those cops just threatened me because I questioned their authority!” And you respond with, ” Yeah, but illegals took our jobs!”

  • Thank You Professor for your sharing this thorough and enlightening information. I’m not a scholar of Constitutional law (or any other kind of law for that matter) but after reading the pdf you linked it seems pretty clear that your records should be protected based upon student confidentiality and other factors. It would at least appear that you should be given ample time to remove any communications which would violate that standard.
    You have my full support and respect and I look forward to following the progress of this matter.
    Respectfully,
    Jennifer L. Hazard, M.S.

  • Ric Hossack:

    Certainly Prof. Cronon is an honorable and decent American. To suppose that the requests made by the Republicans are made in an attempt to discredit him starts to border on paranoia, The Freedom of Information act applies to ALL entities and citizens alike. Likewise the act can be used, and has been used, to disclose information regarding Gov Walker and the Republicans. Just like freedom of speech allows people to voice their opinions it also provides a voice for the vile and foul opinions of Nazis, White Supremacists, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and others we don’t agree with. So grin and bear it, use the act to expose the conspiracy of the Republicans and Democrats alike and return to your elitist academia ways.

    • R:

      “…return to your elitist academia ways.”

      It is odd how you start off saying Cronon is “an honorable and decent American” but then veer into what sounds like anger at the end. What exactly are you accusing him of here? How, exactly, is teaching at a public university and being an extraordinarily popular lecture “elitist”? Is there something wrong with teaching at a college? How is writing a book aimed at a wide readership on the development of the American economy and physical environment elitist? How is maintaining a blog aimed at disseminating information to a broad public elitist? Your anger is misdirected and does you a disservice.

      As to your claim that he is wrong in seeing the request as a way of intimidating it — what exactly is your interpretation about why Republican would file a FOIA request on this (and only this) professor two days after publishes a blog entry that is potentially detrimental to that party? Certainly they have no reason to suspect that he has abused university resources, since publishing a blog in no way contradicts university policy.

      • Ric Hossack:

        To infer the the FOI laws should not pertain to him or any other academic is elitist. They should and do apply to ALL. I am not angry as you have perceived but am disappointed and disillusioned with our current political ploys. What happened to providing for the public interest? Instead we spend countless hours and many resources in perpetuating self interests. Certainly Prof Cronon has my support if the requests for emails results in a smear campaign against his views. But to assume that the Republicans “have it in for him” starts to border on paranoia. And the supposition that all republicans are “bad people” is just wrong. I have used the Freedom of Information Act in my state [Connecticut] to expose the wrong doings of republicans and democrats alike. Political affiliation should not trump the truth, be it Republican or Democrat
        Certainly public university professors are elitists in many ways. As defined- elitism :consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group. The mere mention of the supporting groups one belongs to is elitist. Public university professors are paid by the public and are shielded from downturns in the economy by virtue of their guaranteed 3-4% raises. In addition they hold the power of success or failure. I do not hold any disrespect for this group but simply point out the elitist status they hold.

        • Michael Dean:

          Ric,

          You should perhaps reread the blog post the Prof. Cronon put up. He is not saying that FOI does not pertain to him. He is stating that the use of FOI in the manner it is being requested of him will abuse an essential tool of democracy (Read the Section “Essential Tool of Democracy).

          It seems extremely prudent to your argument what you feel the Republican’s are trying to get from his e-mails. So what is it?

          I can see nothing but character assassination in the request, and I think Prof. Cronon does a great job of detailing what the Republican request entails. He also highlights the importance of the FOI, and believes it is a good thing that it does apply to professors. Create a counter argument rather than just asserting that he is border-line paranoid, because he seems quite sane to me.

          Furthermore, you make the statement – “the supposition that all republicans are ‘bad people’ is just wrong” – if this were a supposition of Prof. Cronon’s then you’re right, it would be wrong. However, Prof. Cronon does not argue that Republican’s are bad people, nor does he argue they’re good people. He is a historian and is, at least outwardly, neutral on these grounds.

          Your dictionary description of elitism certainly fits William Cronon, he is clearly proud of being a professor at the University. Though the word elitism, by no stretch of imagination, clearly comes with some negative connotations. It seems as though it was unnecessary to your base argument to call him elitist in the dictionary sense you mention. I see no reason for you saying it unless you were trying to convey some of those negative interpretations of the word. That may not have been your purpose, but you should certainly be more careful with the word in the future if those were not your intentions.

          Give his blog another read through, it seems your understanding of what he says is entirely off the mark, though your intentions aren’t.

          Cordially,

          Michael Dean

    • Greg Vitercik:

      Where do you come up with the notion that FOI applies to “all citizens”? It refers only to governmental bodies as rather tortuously defined in Wisconsin Public Records Law Wis. Stat. § 19.31-19.39 [19.32] (2003). I’m not entirely sure it even applies to faculty members of the UW system, but I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not entirely clear about that.

      You may not want Prof. Cronon to put up a fight in this, although I suspect you might not cheerfully turn over your emails in response to this sort of fishing expedition, in spite of your supposedly anti-elitist “all citizens” take on the law. The political motivation for the GOP request is ludicrously transparent and should not be accepted as expressing a legitimate need for the “records.”

      “Elitist” is not a dirty word.

      • Michael Dean:

        Greg,

        I’m not actually sure if you’re specifically addressing me or not? But I assume you are.

        I don’t have a notion that FOI applies to “all citizens” nor did I ever say so. I do believe the law applies to Prof. Cronon as a state employee, though I am not a lawyer either.

        I actually am incredibly for Prof. Cronon putting up a fight, and sincerely hope that the Republicans retract their request, and I further believe the initial request of the Republicans was ludicrous. I apologize if I was unclear on that very central point in my argument against Ric.

        You’re absolutely correct that I would not like to hand over my e-mails in a fishing expedition like this.

        I don’t know if I would call myself “anti-elitist,” I simply believe that when you call someone elitist in the sense Ric did, you are implying a certain level of arrogance on the person you call elitist. I tried to be very neutral in my comments on that section as it is simply up to word interpretations. As an analogy, liberal may have bad connotations in some circles and not in others. I personally am happy to call myself a liberal, despite it’s dirty connotations in some social/political circles.

        My reply to Ric was intended to be more of a criticism of his rhetoric in commenting an lack of understanding of the central points in Prof. Cronon’s blog. I wanted to encourage him to become further informed since it is awful to try to debate with someone who only uses a straw man argument to support their points.

        • Michael Dean:

          Upon second look at the entire thread I see you weren’t addressing me Greg… my bad.

          Though I would side comment that elitist does carry negative connotations as it implies an arrogant belief that “elites” should rule society and that the individual percieves themselves to be part of that “elite.” I do not believe that William Cronon is to any degree an elitist, and I would say Ric’s use of the word is intended as a form of underwritten slander and a poor shot at an ad hominem attack.

  • Valerie Laken:

    Thank you so much, Professor Cronon, for your insightful analysis of these developments, and for your candor and courage in the face of this disturbing request from the Republican Party. Please continue to stand strong. I support and admire your efforts to educate people across the country about our state’s proud history and our troubled present.

    For truly dedicated faculty, it is nearly impossible to draw a line between what work is “official university business” and what work is not. Your work with scholarly organizations raises the stature of UW, advances your field, and establishes connections with other scholars that may help you and your students advance their research and their careers. Your work with editors and other writers and scholars fulfills similar functions, as do, of course, your scholarly and general-interest publications, which include your op-ed and blog.

    Almost all universities expect faculty to participate in many such “unofficial university business” activities, and professors who do not will be hard-pressed to pass their annual, tenure, and promotion reviews, and indeed hard-pressed to find work teaching anywhere at the college level.

    If your emails become public, I hope they will enlighten the public to the vast and varied work professors do, night and day, on weekends and holidays, and with great generosity, commitment, and personal sacrifice. Thank you for standing up for our proud traditions, our rights, and our future.

    Valerie Laken
    Assistant Professor of English
    UW-Milwaukee

  • mxh:

    A similar thing is happening in Virginia, with the Republican attorney general costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars going on a fishing expedition to look for things that may undermine the finding a prior UVA professor had about global warming. This does nothing but waste taxpayer dollars and force great educators and researchers to run away from public institutions and the state in general.

    Of course, one could get back at them by using the FOIA to get their emails for a similar fishing expedition.

    • John Q. Public:

      Right, this is “similar.” Mann very obviously faked enormous amounts of “research” and then tried to cover it up. The problem is he was using funds from taxpayers and fraud is fraud and the AG of Virginia is supposed to make sure people don’t get away with fraud.

      • John Q Pubic said, “Mann very obviously faked enormous amounts of “research” and then tried to cover it up.”

        Please stop lying. Mann did no such thing and you have zero proof of it. He was already investigated by the federal government and they found no evidence of fraud or wrong doing.

        Also, nothing about this controversy disproves the FACT that Global Warming is real and is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of rain forests.

        The only major controversy surrounding Global Warming is this: Are the deniers just plain idiots or are they complete morons?

      • VAgirl:

        Obvious for whom? Nothing came of it. Other than those like you who keep convicting a man cleared of wrongdoing.

      • Steven Sullivan:

        John Q., The problem is people like you spreading lies like this. People like you are destroying our country. Shame on you.

        • webmaster:

          @steven: Warning that abusive language and personal attacks violate the Terms of Service. Please refrain.

  • Robert Virden:

    The tactics of Republicans on any issue you can imagine should not surprise anyone who has even casually followed the past thirty years or longer of the political war going on. They in fact will use ALL issues you can imagine to manipulate public opinion in their favor. For them it is Political Assassination 101 to attack Prof. Cronon. Kids play.

    Another thing you must know is that they could care less about the social issues you hear them shout about most. Abortion, gays, guns, evolution, whatever. They use these issues to keep the religious right and super patriots in line. The only issues they are interested in is power and the means to gain permanent power. All other issues are exploited for however they can be used to attain that goal.

    So when we get upset about the audacity of the WI Republican Party attacking Prof. Cronon, how unfair it is and abusively intimidating, they are patting themselves on the back for another assassination well done and move on to the next level of attack which is broadcasting the news to 40% of the public who worship them that Prof. Cronon is your typical crackpot liberal leftist radical professor with possible ties to Nazi Communist Muslim Alien Terrorist organizations, just like Obama.

    Stay tuned.

  • William Jolitz:

    The question we are asking at this point in history is about what we definite democracy and republic to mean.

    Do we wish for a combined wealth of plurality of all kinds of powerful voices and protection from the abuses of de Tocquville’s “tyranny of the majority” such that noble goals might be discovered, explored, and moved forward upon.

    Or do we wish for the efficiencies of a narrowly, possibly corporatist defined leadership that cows the chaotic, irresponsible “rabble” such that it can achieve its pre-decided noble goals.

  • Ann Marie Waterhouse:

    Maybe the fee for such an e-mail search should be $7.5 million.

  • Kevin Knaus:

    At the Harvard Conference on the Internet and Society in 1996, Bill Gates stated to the roughly 700 people attending, most of them, save me, Harvard graduates, that if he were to send his children to college it would be to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He continued, “why you might ask? Because it is the best school in the world.” He went on to explain his reasoning, some of which had to do with the breadth of academic research and the important way that the State of Wisconsin sought to support education with funding. I would have to think Mr. Gates would be prone to reconsidering his position right about now.

    I applaud Mr. Cronon. And should he not prevail, I would imagine there will be no shortage of FOIA requests directed towards any number of various ruling elite’s email accounts. Time to break out the ole search engine skills.

  • Arturo Casarez:

    Thank you Prof. Cronon for being a good and responsible citizen of this world. Your very succinct detailing of what has become a political cancer in our country is nothing short of troubling. We need to identify these political cancerous tumors and then eradicate them. My field of study in college was Political Science…I found out too late I didn’t have the ruthlessness, deceit, and penchant for financial self enrichment to be worthwhile in the field. Instead, I opted to become a firefighter/emt and serve my community in a meaningful way. Keep up the good work!

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