Republicans want to open UW professor’s e-mails

A prominent Wisconsin Republican operative is seeking legal permission to search through selected e-mails of a University of Wisconsin professor who wrote a blog and a New York Times Op-Ed piece that were critical of Gov. Scott Walker.

Stephan Thompson, the deputy executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for e-mails sent to or from William Cronon, who is the UW Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas research professor of history, geography and environmental studies.

Specifically, Thompson is asking to see any of Cronon’s e-mails that "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."

Earlier this month, Cronon, who was recently elected by historians throughout the country to be president of the American Historical Association (AHA), was asked to write an Op-Ed article for The New York Times on the historical context of Walker’s effort to revoke the collective bargaining rights of public employees. While researching the subject, Cronon posted on his personal blog some of his findings about various conservative groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and their impact on Wisconsin politics.

Two days later, Thompson filed the request to see Cronon’s e-mails.

Thompson worked in Walker’s gubernatorial campaign and briefly worked in the governor’s office after Walker was inaugurated as governor.

In response to the Republicans’ request to search his e-mails, Cronon wrote: “My most important observation is that I find it simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state’s Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity. I’m offended by this not just because it’s yet another abuse of law and procedure that has seemingly become standard operating procedure for the state’s Republican Party under Governor Walker, but because it’s such an obvious assault on academic freedom at a great research university that helped invent the concept of academic freedom way back in 1894.”

Several UW professors privately said Thompson’s request was intended to send a message to intimidate academics from saying disparaging things about the Walker administration or opposing the GOP agenda.
Cronon added, “In my heart of hearts, I keep hoping that even Republicans who learn about my situation will respond by saying to themselves that this is not what their party should stand for.  Indeed, in my own understanding of the history of the GOP, leaving aside dangerous aberrations like Joseph McCarthy, what I am experiencing is not what the Republican Party claims to stand for. It is time at last for ‘the angels of our better nature,” in the words of another great Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to reassert themselves.'”

In response, Republican Party of Wisconsin executive director Mark Jefferson released the following statement (editor’s note: Jefferson misspelled Cronon’s name): “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. I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government. Further, it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request. Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner. The Left is far more aggressive in this state than the Right in its use of open records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media. Finally, I find it appalling that Professor Cronin seems to have plenty of time to round up reporters from around the nation to push the Republican Party of Wisconsin into explaining its motives behind a lawful open records request, but has apparently not found time to provide any of the requested information. We look forward to the University’s prompt response to our request and hope those who seek to intimidate us from making such requests will reconsider their actions.”

Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Mike Tate issued the following statement: "That Scott Walker operatives are intimidating respected academics is a disgusting tool more worthy of a Banana republic. However, it is in keeping with a pattern of hostility toward democracy and dissent that starts with a governor who openly contemplated inciting violence in otherwise peaceful crowds. The Wisconsin Idea is under full siege by Scott Walker."

The AHA issued a statement defending Cronon’s right to research the issues of the day without political prosecution. “We call on public-spirited individuals and organizations to join us in denouncing this assault on academic freedom, and in asking the Wisconsin Republican party to withdraw its request, and to participate in a forthright and fair public conversation about the issues Professor Cronon has raised. 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," the AHA said.

All eyes in the case are now turning toward UW Chancellor Biddy Martin, who must decide how the university responds to Thompson’s FOIA request. Martin issued the following statement: "As you may have heard, the Republican Party in Wisconsin has made a public records request that would include Professor Bill Cronon’s email exchanges on a number of topics. It is their right under the law to do so. State Supreme Court decisions have held that neither the motive nor the identity of the person or group requesting records can be used to avoid complying with records requests. As his recent publications make clear, Professor Cronon respects Wisconsin’s open records law. The university respects it as well and will comply with the law, as it always does. Compliance with public records requests involves a balancing test. There are many cases in which the university must balance the need, for instance, to protect proprietary research against the public’s right to know. In this instance, we will need to consider whether disclosure would result in a chilling effect on the discourse between colleagues that is essential to our academic mission. Academic freedom is one of the university’s greatest contributions to a democratic society. No other institution is charged specifically with protecting the pursuit of knowledge, wherever it may lead. Individual faculty, staff and students inevitably consider and advocate positions that will be at odds with one another’s views and the views of people outside of the university. It is the university’s responsibility both to comply with state law and to protect our community’s right to explore freely and freely express their points of view."

The New York Times followed up with this Op-Ed after Thompson filed his request to search Cronon’s e-mails.


Kay Plantes, former chief economist and director of economic policy development for former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus, said the squabble over the professor’s e-mails is a waste of time and a distraction from the mission to create more jobs in the state.

“If Wisconsin wants to communicate, ‘We are open for everyone’s business,’ it is critical that our policy debates be data-based and our government leaders open to a diversity of ideas and insights that improve decisions, especially when they come from someone like professor Bill Cronon,  a known political independent and esteemed historian, teacher and citizen. Since Walker’s election, each side of the political divide in our state keeps upping the stakes, creating the kind of external uncertainty that stops investment dead in its track, as we saw with Invenergy pulling out of our state. Engaging in win-lose political tactics will turn into a lose-lose economic outcome for Wisconsin residents, communities and businesses.”

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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