Friday, March 25, 2011

Wisconsin Republican Party Attacks Academic Freedom

Updated Below: (1), (2)

William Cronon is a professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the President-elect of the American Historical Association.  For those of you who do not know his work he has been a major figure in the development of environmental history and a leading figure in the study of United States history.  He recently began a blog "Scholar As Citizen"  to engage public discussion and debates where he can bring his scholarly knowledge to bear.   He is now a target of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

His "mistake," apparently was writing a blog entry on the efforts of Wisconsin Republicans to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees and the connections between those efforts and the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  ALEC is an organization founded in the 1970s to help draft conservative legislation.  Cronon subsequently published an op-ed in the NYT that showed what a radical departure the Walker Administration was from previous Wisconsin history and especially from the long history of Wisconsin's Republican Party.  In the course of the opinion piece Cronon drew some pretty tentative comparisons between Walker's style and that of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

The Wisconsin Republican Party apparently found Cronon's writing on the links between Walker's initiatives and ALEC unacceptable.  In response they demanded--under Wisconsin's Open Records Law--copies of any of Cronon's University emails relating to a series of names and topics.  Cronon has provided the request on his blog  and I reproduce it here:

From: Stephan Thompson []
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.
Stephan Thompson
Republican Party of Wisconsin
For those who have not followed the Wisconsin matter some of the names belong to Republican legislatures who are facing recall movements, other topics relate obviously to the history and practice of collective bargaining.   It is hard to imagine the purpose of the request except to discredit or intimidate Cronon, or to suggest that he violated some term of employment.

I won't belabor the issue here except to note as I have done before that Wisconsin's Republican party seems to be at the forefront of the assault on labor rights and public employees.  But of course they are not alone in that.  Nor are they alone in this effort either.  In Virginia, the Attorney General has subpoenaed the records of a former professor who does research on climate change alleging fraud while in Illinois a prosecutor subpoenaed the records and notes of students who participated in a Journalism class connected to the Innocence Project.  Each of these cases are ongoing.  Combined with other recent cases concerning Academic Freedom they show a disturbing trend of trying to limit the critical speech of academics.

As Cronon himself  notes, the use of Public Records Laws is a complex issue.  We all, scholars and citizens (to use Cronon's pairing) benefit from the federal FOIA and the numerous state open records laws here in California and elsewhere.  Individuals at UC and CSU have used these laws to pry open records relating to auxiliaries, investment decisions, budgetary allocations etc.  The efforts by both the Bush and Obama administrations to eviscerate FOIA under an expanded claim of state secrets is a profound danger to our democracy.

But like the efforts to use shield laws to protect high government officials when they seek to mislead the public or damage the reputation of whistle-blowers, these efforts are something different than preserving governmental openness.  Here, instead, is an effort by the politically powerful to use practices designed to protect citizens in order to harass them; here is an effort to deploy the rhetoric of free speech to stifle it; here is an effort to use tools designed to make government more open to make it make it harder to understand the forces shaping government.  Sunshine laws in the interest of secrecy.

We all have our criticisms of the University as it really exists.  But it is, at least at this point, still one of the spaces where the normal systems regulating thought and speech are held at bay.  It would be a disaster for all if this space was lost entirely.

For other commentary you can see here, here, and here.

The Wisconsin Republican Party has responded to insist that they are victims of Cronon's attempt to intimidate them.  Cronon has made that available here.

You can follow this story as it unfolds at Cronon's blog.  It is an important moment to defend academic freedom--both Cronon's and everyone else's.

Update 1: New York Times Editorial

Update 2: Cronon Has a List of Links of Commentary on the Issue 

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