A couple of days ago, I wrote about an op-ed William Cronon wrote in The New York Times arguing that by attempting to strip public unions of their bargaining rights, Wisconsin Republicans “are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well.” Cronon also published a blog post suggesting that a conservative group called The American Legislative Exchange Council—which I have written about here—is behind the push to eliminate collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.
Shortly afterward, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Cronon is a professor of history, geography, and environmental studies, received a request under the state’s Open Records Law from the Wisconsin Republican Party for copies of any e-mails sent from Cronon’s university e-mail account which either use keywords like “AFCSME,” “collective bargaining,” “rally,” and “union,” or the names of a number of Wisconsin political figures. Cronon speculates that the state Republicans are hoping to show that he’s a “liberal activist” who is using his state e-mail account “to engage in illegal lobbying and efforts to influence elections.”
As Cronon tells Greg Sargent, these are “McCarthyite tactics.” As my fellow Big Think blogger Kris Broughton writes, they amount to little more than a witch hunt. The Wisconsin Republican party is demanding to see all Cronon’s professional correspondance—including confidential e-mails to his students—without any apparent reason to think he has done anything wrong. Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party responded to criticism of their actions by explaining that the party “does not have to give a reason” for making an open records request and saying he finds the attempts to “intimidate” the party from making such requests “chilling.”
Whether or not the request is legal—among other things, it may run afoul of The Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA), which makes it illegal for universities to release student records without the permission of the students themselves—criticism of the request by a university professor hardly amounts to “intimidation.” It’s not clear that the fact that Cronon works at a public university really should really open up the details of his research or teaching to public scrutiny in the absence of any reason to believe he has done anything wrong. Nor is it clear that political parties should be combing through employee records to harass their critics. If anything, it's the party's request that's really chilling.
What are the Wisconsin Republicans thinking, anyway? They already face nationally-funded recall drives. They are not going to be able to do much to quash Cronon’s criticism of them by smearing him. Instead, this petty bullying has kept his remarks—and the state party’s controversial tactics—in the news.
UPDATE: The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday condemning the Wisconsin Republican Party's actions as "vengeful and ridiculous." And Tenured Radical adds this in response to the Republican Party's complaints about being intimidated, "I hate it when the big, bad history pwofessors aftah the eeny-weenie iddle politicians. Pick on someone your own size next time, ok?"