Wisconsin GOP Seeks E-Mails of a Madison Professor Who Criticized the Governor

Hilary Fey Cronon

William Cronon
March 25, 2011

[Updated with university response, 4:25 p.m.]

The Republican Party of Wisconsin is seeking, under the state's open-records law, to obtain e-mail sent by a Madison professor who has publicly criticized that state's Republican governor, a move the professor is denouncing as an assault on his academic freedom.

Officials at the University of Wisconsin at Madison received the records request on March 17, two days after the professor, William Cronon, published a blog post examining the role conservative advocacy groups have played in formulating legislation recently proposed by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers. The most prominent of the legislation, a bill to strip University of Wisconsin and other public employees of their collective-bargaining rights, was passed after a bitter debate that featured huge rallies at the State Capitol and demands for the recall of lawmakers on both sides of the issue.

In an e-mail to John C. Dowling, a university lawyer who fields open-records requests, Stephan Thompson, deputy executive director of the Wisconsin GOP, asked for all e-mails into or from Mr. Cronon's state e-mail account as of January 1 that contain certain keywords. Those include "Republican," "Scott Walker," "recall," "collective bargaining," "rally," "union," the names of 10 Republican lawmakers, the acronyms of two state public-employee unions, and the names of those two unions' leaders.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Cronon, a tenured professor of history, geography, and environmental studies, said the open-records request appeared intended to dig up evidence that he had violated a state law that bars public employees from using state resources, such as their work e-mail accounts, for partisan political purposes.

"I am absolutely confident that there is nothing in these e-mails that is inappropriate," said Mr. Cronon, who characterized himself as "a relentless centrist in my own politics" and scrupulous about not using his university e-mail account "for anything that might be questionable." But, Mr. Cronon said, he is urging the state GOP to withdraw the open-records request as a matter of principle because he believes its request "will have a chilling effect on the university" by giving faculty members reason to fear that any e-mail they send will be made public as a result of politically driven efforts by their critics to fish around for information that will discredit them.

In a blog post written in response to the open-records request, Mr. Cronon said several of the e-mails that the university could be forced to produce under the open-records request are part of correspondence with students covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Others, he said, are private correspondences with colleagues about purely academic matters having nothing to do with state politics or university business, as well as e-mails about the deliberations of the Organization of American Historians, whose board he sits on, and the American Historical Association, of which he is president-elect. He said he was a strong supporter of open-records laws and was not arguing for any exemptions to them, but believes that, in this case, Wisconsin's law is being abused.

'Deplorable Tactics'

The state GOP, which had fielded numerous calls from reporters since the open-records request was first reported on the blog Talking Points Memo, issued a statement on Friday accusing Mr. Cronon of using "deplorable tactics" in trying to pressure it into withdrawing the request. The statement quotes Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin GOP, as saying that his organization "does not have to give a reason" for the open-records request, and that he finds it "appalling that Professor Cronon 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."

"I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government," Mr. Jefferson said in the statement. "Further," he added, "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."

Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, on Friday said the university planned to comply with the open-records law, but, in doing so, planned to balance the university’s interest in protecting academic freedom against the public’s right to the information contained in state documents. Academic freedom “is one of the university’s greatest contributions to a democratic society,” she said.

Gregory F. Scholtz, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said his group planned to urge the university to resist the open-records request because it believes complying with it will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. Characterizing Mr. Cronon as an "extremely major" player in his academic fields, Mr. Scholtz said "they picked on the wrong guy this time."