Marxists and neo-Marxists have long debated the relationship between scholars and the lumpen proletariat, the majority of union members and their sociopolitical affinity or antagonism to an intellectual elite. But academics have always been union members, and even in the free enterprise rewards of the US's academia, teachers and writer and scientists are not raking in the dough. But the way neoliberal conservatism has pitted pitted labour against an intellectual (leftist) elite always confuses the rest of the world, and for good reason, because it masks their basic compatability. Now the Tea Party's Wisconsin branch is trying to drive a wedge between scholars and Freedom of Information advocates as 'citizen scholars' like William Cronen write about the new Republican threats to (their recent, illogical allies)---the labour movement. Finally, the unions of the US have been stuffed around enough and are fighting back against Tea Partiers to preserve hard-won rights-- with the support of academics, journalists, activists, and much of the embattled middle class.
Below Ive reproduced a blog entry discussion by the Wisconsin academic William Cronen, whose New York Times criticisms of the State's Republican Party provoked a Freedom of Information Act investigation into his own email records. Below this is a commentary on this issue from the Talking Points Memo website with Rachel Maddow.
Now all of this may seem remote to readers of this blog with PNG interests, but we need to remember that only last year a law firm accused of massive embezzlement asked the country's web servers to block several web sites (this one included) discussing the scandal. Those same web sites, by and large, have been strong advocates for labour rights and 'living wage' issues in PNG, particularly in the face of foreign developers who do not share the level and kind of human rights enshrined in the constitution of PNG.
March 24, 2011
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: https://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: https://legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/stat0019.pdf,
and learn more about its application here:
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.
Republican Party of Wisconsin
(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 https://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
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:
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.
Conservative Think Tank Seeks Michigan Profs' Emails About Wisconsin Union Battle ... And Maddow
Evan McMorris-Santoro | March 29, 2011, 10:12AM
A free enterprise think tank in Michigan -- backed by some of the biggest names in national conservative donor circles -- has made a broad public records request to at least three in-state universities with departments that specialize in the study of labor relations, seeking all their emails regarding the union battle in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, TPM has learned.
According to professors subject to the request, filed under Michigan's version of the Freedom Of Information Act, the request is extremely rare in academic circles. An employee at the think tank requesting the emails tells TPM they're part of an investigation into what labor studies professors at state schools in Michigan are saying about the situation in Madison, Wisc., the epicenter of the clashes between unions and Republican-run state governments across the Midwest.
One professor subject to the FOIA described it as anti-union advocates "going after folks they don't agree with."
The Mackinac Center For Public Policy, based in Midland, Mich., submitted the FOIA requests last Friday and Monday to the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan and the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University. A third FOIA was directed to Michigan State University, which has a School of Human Resources & Labor Relations.
The requests specifically seek emails from all labor studies faculty at each school.
The Mackinac Center For Public Policy describes itself as a "nonpartisan research and educational institute" focused on providing free market "solutions to state and local policy questions" in Michigan. The center does not disclose its donors but
according to recent reporting by Mother Jones, Mackinac "is part of a network of state-based groups associated with the Heritage Foundation."
Past major donors to Mackinac Center, according to Mother Jones, have included the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (the Wal-Mart Waltons), and foundations tied to two of Michigan's best-known and wealthiest conservative political families: the DeVos family of Amway fame and the Prince family of Blackwater fame.
The Mackinac Center has long pushed for several of the controversial proposals put forward by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), including one which would allow state government to step in when local municipalities face financial crises and declare, as one supportive legislator put it, "financial martial law," including abrogating union contracts.
The think tank is also known for FOIAing state workers, including teachers and professors. In February, it criticized Michigan State for not fully complying with a FOIA request for emails surrounding a plagiarism scandal involving MSU faculty. A recent request was for public school teacher emails that may or may not have mentioned the possibility of a strike. Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan. That FOIA request was denied, leading to outcry from the Mackinac Center and the Michigan Press Association.
But where those requests were relatively narrow -- looking for emails surrounding a specific incident or specific plans for a strike -- the FOIAs sent to state university labor studies faculty are quite broad. The parameters for the request, from a version of the FOIA obtained by TPM and confirmed by Mackinac, cover emails that mention:
"Scott Walker"; "Wisconsin"; "Madison"; "Maddow"; Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.
The request covers all faculty emails from "January 1, 2011 to March 25, 2011."
Read the entire FOIA sent to UM here.
Jarrett Skorup, the Mackinac Center research associate whose name is on the FOIA, told TPM he helped write and then filed the FOIAs at the request of his bosses, but he wasn't sure what they'd be used for in the end. He suggested the Mackinac Center was looking for chatter about the Wisconsin labor situation from state professors paid to study labor relations.
"I would imagine just to see what the people in the labor studies dept are thinking about stuff in Wisconsin," Skorup said when asked the purpose of the FOIAs.
His boss, Mackinac Center newsletter managing editor Ken Braun, refused to comment on the FOIAs.
"I'm not going to release what we're writing about," he said.
Roland Zullo, a professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy and subject to the request, suggested the Mackinac Center is trying to catch labor studies professors in illegal political advocacy on state time.
"It sounds like they're trying to catch us advocating for the recall or the election of a politician," Zullo said. "Because we're not supposed to do that, we're not supposed to use our University of Michigan resources for something like that."
Zullo said his faculty has been FOIAed by a conservative group before, several years ago, but the request went nowhere after the broad (and expensive) request for documents from his colleagues led the group to drop the FOIA.
Marick Masters, director of the labor studies program at Wayne State and also subject to a Mackinac Center FOIA, says he's never seen anything like it.
"I've been an educator since early 1980s and I've never had a FOIA request," he said. Masters declined to speculate on the nature of the request, saying only that "everyone is entitled to file a FOIA request" and that he's forwarded the request to the university's general counsel, who'll decide if and how to comply with it.
Maddow's name in the list of requested emails came as a surprise.
"Some days my job is weirder than others," she told TPM.
Zullo said it sounds to him like labor studies professors are becoming the latest pawns in the fight between conservatives and labor that has heated up since January, when a slew of tea party-backed Republican governors were sworn in around the country.
"This is a way that they're going after folks they don't agree with, I suppose," Zullo said. "I see it just simply as part of the political environment we exist in right now."
This post has been updated with Maddow's response to TPM.