Wisconsin probe assaults academic freedom: what’s next?

As a kid in the early 1950’s, I remember coming down to breakfast and having my father point out to me the Boston Globe headline that Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy had published a list of Harvard University professors who were Communists or known sympathizers. I was too young to know if I was supposed to be more afraid of McCarthy or of what was going on in Cambridge. Those extreme days of the “Red scare” are recalled today as the Wisconsin Republican Party uses the Freedom of Information Act to request all the emails by eminent historian and professor William Cronon.

Cronon had been critical in a blog about Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to decimate the public workers’ union. Republican Party director Stephan Thompson followed up with the over-the-top FOIA request for Cronon’s emails. It has been speculated that the Republicans were looking for evidence that he was involved in a petition to recall certain GOP legislators, which kind of political activity would have been barred to a public university professor. There’s apparently no evidence of that.
The request has left us with a keen sense of attempted invasion of privacy, stomping on academic freedom and violation of First Amendment rights.

Cronon’s blog, written in a scholarly way about the history of the American conservative movement, points to the American Legislative Exchange Council as the source of Governor Walker’s proposal. The Council, or ALEC, describes itself as a “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators which favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions.”  Cronon noted it is providing legislation templates on several issues to like-minded legislators across the country. Cronon also wrote an op ed published in the New York Times.

The University complied with the GOP request in a narrow way, refusing to send emails that bore on privacy matters relating to current or prospective students, intellectual discourse with colleagues both on campus and in professional organizations, personnel and personal matters. UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin stood firm, noting that, while university professors can’t abuse their use of university resources or the umbrella of academic freedom, she warned against the use of sweeping FOIA requests as a way to intimidate academics.

The cause has been taken up by the Times and many other media outlets. In The Atlantic, James Fallows excoriates the encroachment. Slate says that the critics are all overreaching, in effect, that, in the public interest, there’s no such thing as a bad FOIA or public records request.

We have to remember how easy it is for public sector officials to incline toward cover-up, foot-dragging in response to requests, imposing onerous charges for providing information and even heavily redacting what should legitimately be accessible to the public. But my sense is that the request for all of Professor Cronon’s emails went way too far, with the clear cut intent to chill. College campuses should be safe places for free and vigorous discourse, the testing of ideas, even unpleasant ones. The attempted intrusion was ably defended against by the University of Wisconsin Chancellor and Counsel. But an atmosphere of academic intimidation, whether by FOIA requests, threats to cut academic budgets or political correctness is toxic, and the pushback must be vigorous.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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