Scholar As Citizen: Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom

A Tactic I Hope Republicans Will Rethink:Using the Open Records Law to Intimidate Critics

March 24, 2011- 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: http://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: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/stat0019.pdf,
and learn more about its application here:
http://www.doj.state.wi.us/dls/OMPR/2010OMCG-PRO/2010_OML_Compliance_Guide.pdf

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.

Sincerely,

Stephan Thompson

Republican Party of Wisconsin

608-257-4765

******************************************

(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 http://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.

FULL STORY HERE:


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