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GOP Files FOIA Request for UW Madison Professor William Cronon's Emails

[David A. Walsh is the associate editor of HNN.]

The Wisconsin Republican Party is filing legal documents to gain access to the personal emails of William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and president-elect of the American Historical Association, in response to a March 15 blog post where he outlined the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in drafting conservative legislation in states around the country.

Wisconsin Republicans requested copies of:

all emails in and out of [Prof. 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 [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees], WEAC [Wisconsin Education Association Council], rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald [Senate majority leader], Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald [speaker of the assembly], Marty Beil [executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union], or Mary Bell [president of WEAC].

Darling, Hopper, Kapanke, Cowles, Harsdorf, Olsen, Grothman, and Lazich are all Republican legislators who face recall campaigns.

Cronon responded on his blog that “[I] must [have] come pretty close to hitting the bulls-eye” on the role of ALEC in drafting the Wisconsin bill and that the Wisconsin Republican Party is “hoping that I’ve been violating [Wisconsin law]” prohibiting the use state email addresses (including those in the UW system) for political purposes. “[They want] to use my own emails to prove that I’m a liberal activist who is using my state email account to engage in illegal lobbying…. They’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic.”

Cronon repeatedly emphasized, both in his original blog post on ALEC and his response to the Republican request, that he is an ideological centrist who belongs to neither party. Indeed, he took pains to emphasize in his March 15 post that he was not engaging in a partisan attack on the secretive and little-known ALEC, but that he wished to promote “open public discussion and the genuine clash of opinions among different parts of the political spectrum, which I believe is best served by full and open disclosure of the interests of those who advocate particular policies.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council, writes Cronon, was the most important group in drafting Wisconsin’s anti-union legislation. Founded by in 1973 by Henry Hyde (who would subsequently be elected to Congress in Illinois and serve for thirty-three years), Lou Barnett (a staffer on Ronald Reagan’s 1968 presidential campaign and an organizer of the Conservative Political Action Conference—CPAC), and Paul Weyrich (an original founder of the Moral Majority), it drafts generic templates for ideologically conservative bills which are then subsequently introduced by members (typically state Republican lawmakers) to state legislatures. Nearly a fifth of the bills eventually become laws, including, Cronon notes, “the controversial 2010 anti-immigration law in Arizona.)

Cronon also said that the state Republican Party is abusing the Freedom of Information Act by using it to “harass individual faculty members” and also worried that Republican investigators would be privy to confidential nonpolitical emails with students and colleagues. “Neither I nor my academic correspondents imagined that my doing so might put the confidentiality of our communications at risk,” a major assault on academic freedom.

The Wisconsin GOP responded to repeated requests from various news organizations by issuing a statement from Executive Director Mark Jefferson stating that “like anyone else who makes an open records request in Wisconsin, the Republican Party of Wisconsin does not have to give a reason for doing so.”

“Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public official are conducting themselves.”

“It’s honestly the lack of fair-mindedness in the [GOP’s statement that I find most disturbing,” Cronon responded in his most recent blog post. “I’m rapidly gaining an unhappy education about what hardball politics in the United States now looks like.”

“I worried for a while,” he wrote, “that my New York Times op-ed on “Wisconsin’s Radical Break” might have gone too far in drawing a carefully limited parallel between the current tactics of the Republican Party in Wisconsin and those of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s…but since the Republican Party seems intent on offering evidence to support that comparison, I guess I should just let their words and actions speak for themselves.”

MARCH 28 UPDATE: The flap over the Wisconsin GOP’s FOIA request has almost overnight turned William Cronon, already a prominent historian, into one of the most talked-about academics in America. The American Historical Association issued a statement this morning that “deplores recent efforts by the deputy executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party to intimidate William Cronon...”

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…. We call on public-spirited individuals and organizations to join us in denouncing this assault on academic freedom… 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.

Gregory Shultz, president of the American Association of University Professors wrote in a letter to the University of Wisconsin that “disclosure of Professor Cronon’s e-mail correspondence will inevitably produce a chilling effect not only on Professor Cronon’s academic freedom but also the academic freedom of his… colleagues…”

Paul Krugman brought up the Cronon case in his March 28 New York Times column, sparking off a round of responses in the blogosphere:

The hard right — which these days is more or less synonymous with the Republican Party — has a modus operandi when it comes to scholars expressing views it dislikes: never mind the substance, go for the smear. And that demand for copies of e-mails is obviously motivated by no more than a hope that it will provide something, anything, that can be used to subject Mr. Cronon to the usual treatment.

The Cronon affair, then, is one more indicator of just how reflexively vindictive, how un-American, one of our two great political parties has become.

Jonathan Tobin at Commentary argued in response to Krugman that, despite Cronon’s public self-identification as a centrist and a member of neither party, he is in fact a liberal academic who has injected himself into political debate and is hence fair game. Besides, the Democrats would have done the same thing had the roles been reversed:

The New York Times’s Paul Krugman has won a Nobel Prize for Economics but anyone reading his column today, which alleges that liberals are being persecuted on American college campuses, must think that his next award will be for science fiction. Krugman writes about William Cronon, a liberal professor at the University of Wisconsin who is getting some heat from people who didn’t care for his using his academic perch as a launching point for partisan invective at his state’s Republican governor. Some think that Cronon, a state employee, ought to be called to account for possibility conducting partisan political activity while being paid by the state, a violation of law in Wisconsin as well as most other places. Republicans are using the state’s Open Records Law to try and find out whether he used his university email to send out an op-ed published by the Times last week.

Are the Republicans nit-picking about Cronon’s use of his e-mail account? Sure. But none of us should be in any doubt as to whether the left would give the same treatment to a right-winger who attacked Democrats in the same manner as Cronon did. Liberals who have used freedom of information laws whenever it served their interests should not be crying foul over the Republicans doing so.

James Fallows, blogger at The Atlantic, wrote that Madison is eerily becoming reminiscent of Beijing:

I am staying in a country where a lot of recent news concerns how far the government is going in electronic monitoring of email and other messages to prevent any group, notably including academics or students, from organizing in order to protest. I don't like that any better in Madison than I do in Beijing.

Regional bloggers and media outlets have also been active in . Madison’s Capital Times ran an editorial by Paul Fanlund this morning bluntly asking “On Cronon, what is GOP thinking?”

Maybe I am missing some GOP public relations nuance, but attacking a superstar academic only highlights his viewpoints and puts them before a national audience, no? Just how big is this anti-intellectual tea party base that the state Republican Party feels it needs to satiate?

PZ Myers, the combative University of Minnesota Morris biologist, atheist, and author of the blog Pharyngula, also weighed in:

The response has been interesting (in the sense of the Chinese curse) for Cronon. The Wisconsin Republican party is dunning him with an open records request demanding all emails that he has received mentioning any of the players in the recent labor conflicts in Wisconsin. Why? Because they're planning a witch hunt with Cronon as the prey, and they want to find any damning connection that will allow them to claim that Cronon is an apparatchik and propagandist, rather than an independent historian with a serious scholarly focus. Cronon himself has put together an analysis of the request — it's an effort to silence a critic with intimidation.

Though the American Legislative Exchange Council remained, until the breaking of the Cronon story, relatively unknown, NPR reported on the organization back in October 2010.  

MARCH 29 UPDATE:Talking Points Memo,Slate, and AlterNet, are reporting that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think-tank based out of Midland, Michigan, has filed FOIA requests to the University of Michigan’s Labor Studies Center, Wayne State University’s Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues, and Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources & Labor Relations. Spokespersons for the history departments at all three universities have said that no historians have had FOIA requests filed for their emails.

MARCH 30 UPDATE:The Executive Committee of the Organization of American Historians issued a press release this afternoon proclaiming its support for William Cronon.

As a professional historian, Professor Cronon has used his extensive knowledge of American history to provide a historical context for recent events in Wisconsin. Requiring him to provide his e-mail correspondence, as the Republican party of Wisconsin has now done, will inevitably have a chilling effect on the capacity of all academics to engage in wide public debate. The timing and character of the Freedom of Information Act request for Professor Cronon’s e-mail correspondence leave no doubt that the purpose of this request is to use the authority of the state to prevent William J. Cronon from freely exercising his rights as a citizen and as a public employee.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, the organization identified in Cronon’s original blog post, issued a statement of their own in an email to the press, saying that “ALEC is proud to be the only state legislative organization that embraces the Jeffersonian principles of limited government, free markets and federalism with the policy solutions to support these ideals.”

With more than 2,000 members, ALEC is the nation's largest, non-partisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators.  ALEC’s legislative members are comprised of both Democrats and Republicans who share the same ideals.  ALEC does not coordinate with any political party.  ALEC is a state legislative organization with the goal of promoting Thomas Jefferson’s principles of limited government, free markets, and federalism through sound policy solutions.  This goal is shared by like-minded lawmakers across the United States….

Accusations of ALEC secretly meeting with governors, ALEC running and coordinating ground campaigns against public employee unions, and ALEC wanting to eliminate public employee unions are first and foremost not true.  ALEC’s States and Nation Policy Summit coincided with newly-elected governors’ meetings at the White House in December, but there were no meetings between governors and ALEC staff on any policy.  If a governor’s policies fall under the Jeffersonian principles of limited government, free markets and federalism, and ALEC has policies similar to those being proposed, then ALEC proudly supports those policies.  ALEC does not have satellite offices.  We have 27 full-time employees that work in Washington, D.C.  ALEC has not sent out “ground troops” to Wisconsin.  ALEC is not coordinating a ground campaign on collective bargaining.