Should political partisans attempt to silence critics who are academics at public universities?

Recently, William Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and president of the American Historical Association, published an op-ed critical of Wisconsin governor in the NYT (Wisconsin’s Radical Break).

In retaliation, the state Republican Party has filed a state-level equivalent of a FOIA request to get access to his university email account.

You can read Cronin’s response here: Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom.

Two separate questions: are the professor’s emails actually public records that are open to FOIA requests? And either way, is it good for the University of Wisconsin and for the state as a whole for politicians of either party to be able to intimidate professors who are publically critical of them?

The Republicans, for their part, claim that Cronon’s response has a “chilling” effect on political discourse that is meant to “quash” dissenting points of view, and they are shocked at Cronon’s “concerted effort to intimidate” the state party into silence. Is there anything to this?

The response is very good. Since anyone, including any academic, has the right to hold and express any belief they wish, this seems pure soviet-style harassment of oppositionist opinion., so the answer to the second question is that it’s a horrible thing for this intimidation to be considered — and that would apply to marxist professors being shut down or libertarian professors being silenced.

As to the first question I cannot comment, not being a native, but any email account is going to mix private, personal, public, professional content no matter what it’s primary purpose: should some emails flagged with the requested terms turn out to be students discussing other matters, but mentioning their views of the governor, does that give the complainants the right to read such mails which have the expectation of privacy ? email is still mail, I would not expect there to be a freedom of information right for the party to inspect the professor’s officially delivered mail, and the same standards apply.

The Republicans would never stoop to rifling through filthy ashcans in order to find dirt upon their enemies, but they can justify this ?

I’m not that familiar with the Cronon situation, but I think it’s a given that we don’t want politicians to start harrassing people for expressing any kind of critical opinion. That’s true even if the alleged critic is, gasp, one of those untrustworthy folks who works for some kind of publicly funded organization. Politicians are holding public servants to an awfully high standard these days. It’d be great if they were doing the same for themselves, but don’t make me laugh.

I think there’s a problem in treating academics as ordinary state-government employees in FOI matters. I don’t have that same problem with administrators, but the research work of academics is going to be impeded if they think that anyone can check their emails and correspondence in this way.

I fall on the right side of scale, battled the left side academics during my tenure as an undergrad in the 80s, and now am quite close to the academy. I despise mindless academics who take their position and use it to further their pet politics - often in an area that has nothing to do with their research. They often use a built-in appeal to authority and my post is my cite attitude.

With all of that poorly parsed vitriol - the Republicans in Wisconsin should be bitch-slapped so fast and hard on this that their heads spin. Fight the OpEd with ideas, not with anti-First Amendment tactics.

There was also a post on his blog titled, “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?”

The conspiracy theorists on the left are wondering if he hit a little close to home. I’ve never heard of any of the organizations he lists, so got me.

I think it’s unlikely that the blog post generated the response as nobody probably saw it before this story broke. I think it’s a lot more realistic to assume that his op-ed in the NYT caused the response as it has much greater readership.

ALEC is pretty famous in this regard. It’s not exactly a deep dark conspiracy. I’ve certainly heard of it

If he’s ever used email to discuss student grades–and he almost certainly has–then this could conceivably be blocked by FERPA. I don’t know enough about the law to say how that would play out, but it’s a potentially interesting possibility.

The ubiquity of entirely private email accounts, and the probable intelligence level of academic people seems to me to call out rather clearly for a separation of official and private records initiated by the academics themselves.

Although that might have a chilling affect on the sales of muckraking poitical drivel.

Get a room.



Regardless of whether is available under a FOIA request, won’t all email be reviewed for responsiveness as it would in litigation? Can they just say I want everything with the word Smith in it?

I mean, at a minimum, they’d have to review the data for confidential or privileged information, right? He could be talking with his doctor about a medical condition or have an email with his social security number in it.

Of course they can FOIA his email records. It’s a reasonable request, and no it’s not McCarthyism.

A liberal writer, for a liberal online publication, made a good case for that today.

It’s a taxpayer funded email system. He clearly has something to hide - The guy was probably breaking the law, through the “illegal use of state emails to lobby for recall elections designed to defeat Republicans who voted for the Governor’s Budget Repair Bill”, as the lefty himself said.

We are pleased to note that you accord so much deference to “lefty” people that you offer the term to compel respect for an opinion. I look forward to offering you other lefty opinions on the matter, secure in the certainty that you will afford them the same unblushing enthusiasm, seeing as you regard “lefty” opinions as definitive.

I wish to point out – less for relevance than to push against the common tack of finding supporters and claiming, falsely, that they are on the opposing side – that Jack Shafer is not in the least lefty; he’s big-l Libertarian.

IANAL, but I’m pretty sure this is an open-and-shut yes. Professors don’t like to think of themselves this way, but they are state employees, every bit as much as a DMV worker, a state trooper or the Attorney General. (In some states, they must swear a an oath expressing loyalty to the state.) If Wisconsin’s laws provide that state employees’ email accounts are FOIAble, that includes professors.

He may find it intimidating, and it could be the that that was the intent; but this is fundamentally no different from FOIAs to see if a legislator was using his government email account to support his reelection campaign, or if a secretary in the state department of transportation was using her computer at work to photoshop pro-life flyers. If the prof was using his university account for political ends, he was breaking the law.
As a practical matter of politics, it seems to me both petty and stupid on the part of the Wisconsin GOP, unlikely to really gain them anything significant and likely to be counterproductive. I wish they wouldn’t do it; but Cronan, as a state employee, chose to become a political activist, and this is the way partisan politics is done these days.

However, in practical terms there is no 100% certainty that the requests will be fulfilled.

I have seen already plenty of examples in the ongoing war that many Republicans are doing with scientists, before the emails were stolen at the CRU, the trend was for the authorities to side with the climate scientists into **denying **the requests as they were clearly done as harassment.

It has to be mentioned once again that investigations had to be done that in the end exonerated the scientists of even the appearance of wrongdoing that some of the stolen emails seemed to show. And that example does show why we should be wary of this Republican move. It is clear to me that they will be able to find emails that will be twisted to demonstrate whatever you want to partisans. They will not care that later investigations would find good explanations or that the accusations would be dismissed as irrelevant, the point is to unleash the hounds to their critics.

I wish the democrats would had made hearings to investigate properly the crimes of the previous administration, or made more investigations to punish more of the ones that gave us the current economical mess, but IIRC the democrats in the leadership said that the American public wanted them to not look at the past.

Problem with that is that as usual Americans do not have good memories, and thought that it was safe to once again vote for Republicans that would had taken care of the unemployment problem. :rolleyes: So I do wish the Democrats would learn about that way of doing partisan politics, constant investigation of your opponents after an election victory should be the norm. :dubious:

Actually, as far as I can tell, school administrators have been ruled to be state employees, but educators have been ruled not to be.

It’s a bit iffy either way, but that’s how my educator friends tell me these things tend to go.

Wisconsin’s definition of which materials are subject to the open-records law may be broader than that of other states. As Cronon himself writes in the linked article: