The Republican Party of Wisconsin has made an open records request for the emails of a University of Wisconsin professor of history, geography and environmental studies in an apparent response to a blog post the professor wrote about a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Professor William J. Cronon, who is the president-elect of the American Historical Association, said in an interview on Friday that the party asked for emails starting Jan. 1.
The request was made by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. In his request, Thompson asked for emails of Cronon’s state email account 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.”
Most of the names are Republican legislators. Marty Beil is the head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union and Mary Bell is the head of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Thompson was not immediately available for comment.
The article notes (twice!) that the blog is unaffiliated with the University, and is in the private sector. The blog post in question is here.
Here is the email sent to the University of Wisconsin, according to Professor Cronon:
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 think this episode raises important questions regarding the independence of scholars employed in public universities, and the future of freedom of thought and discussion in academia, even when those activities are conducted on non-state property and in non-state, non-official venues.
Note 1: To my knowledge, I have never met or talked with Professor Cronon (it’s a big university!).
Note 2: This post was written on my personal netbook, using my home DSL. — Menzie Chinn 11:45 CDT, 3/25/2011.
Update, 3/26, 12:52pm Pacific: Apparently the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) website is down. Here is a cached version.
Update, 3/28, 6:50pm Pacific: The American Historical Association, the professional association of historians, has released a statement:
March 26, 2011
AHA Deplores Effort to Intimidate William Cronon
The American Historical Association deplores recent efforts by the deputy executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party to intimidate William Cronon, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the incoming president of the AHA. For more than a century, professional historians have drawn on their research to engage in wider debates about politics and society. Working within that tradition, Professor Cronon has used his deep knowledge of American history to provide a historical context for the recent events in Wisconsin. In the process, he has enriched our understanding of the present as well as the past. If the Republican Party of Wisconsin had followed its own finest principles, it would have challenged his historical account and invited him to participate in a public conversation about the issues he has raised. Instead, it has demanded that the university supply copies of emails to and from Cronon that mention certain politicians and activities.
The purpose of the state’s Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings. We call on public-spirited individuals and organizations to join us in denouncing this assault on academic freedom, and in asking the Wisconsin Republican party to withdraw its request, and to participate in a forthright and fair public conversation about the issues Professor Cronon has raised. To remain silent is to acquiesce in an attempt to deprive not only Professor Cronon, but scholars everywhere, of the right to address public issues.
Update, 1:55pm Pacific, 3/29: Apparently, the open records requests trend continues, moving on to Michigan. From Capital Times:
A free-market oriented think tank has made a broad public records request to at least three Michigan universities which house departments that specialize in the study of labor relations, report both Talking Points Memo and Mother Jones.
These reports state the Mackinac Center For Public Policy, which is based in Midland, Mich., submitted the Freedom of Information Act requests to centers at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University.
These requests reportedly ask for emails from professors that reference Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin, Madison or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.