Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Wisconsin GOP Launches Witch Hunt Against Professor William Cronon

Today’s copy of the New York Times sits beside me, unopened. Most of my normal internet haunts have been ignored this morning. Why? Because I have been totally absorbed by a blog post by William Cronon at his blog Scholar As Citizen, titled Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom , which might possibly be the longest, most engaging blog post I have ever read. Today’s blog post by Cronon, a history professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, was in response to this email:

From: Stephan Thompson [mailto:[email protected]] 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.


Stephan Thompson

Republican Party of Wisconsin


Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom

The irony of the Cronon situation is that just before I came across this story at Daily Kos this morning, the dominant thought in my mind was how clueless Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign staffers had to be in order to believe erasing old tweets from Gingrich’s Twitter account would actually remove them from the internet. To compound the error, a Vanity Fair writer alleged that the erased tweets could not be found. But tweets, especially tweets from famous people, don’t die – they multiply. I read through several hundred of the tweets deleted from Gingrich’s Twitter account last night at Topsy. What Gingrich’s staffers and the Wisconsin GOP have woefully underestimated are the multitudes on the internet, multitudes who are always watching.

But back to Professor Cronon, whose response to the recent Freedom Of Information Request by the Wisconsin GOP reads like a primer on how to respond to a personal assault by a political party:

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.

Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom

Weighing in at over 5,000 words, Professor Cronon’s post includes a methodical deconstruction of the chain of events leading up to this request, an analysis of the actual request itself, and a categorical explanation of the potential obstacles and conflicts of interest that are likely to affect the request. The most impressive thing about Cronon’s essay is the way you are able to follow along with his thinking, as if he has opened the inner workings of his brain to the reader.

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.

Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom

The Wisconsin GOP, in just about every way imaginable over the past two months, have reduced themselves to little more than noxious Salem witchhunters, ready to burn any and everybody at the stake who exposes their political chicanery for what it really is. Professor Cronon is unwilling to state the obvious, so I’ll do it for him—the Wisconsin GOP would like nothing better than to see this tenured historian fired from his job.

This is very different from asking an elected official or a government agency to turn over emails relating to their formal duties and their formal exercise of state power.  It asks a university professor to turn over personal emails relating to the day-to-day life of an intellectual community in its “sifting and winnowing” in pursuit of truth. This would not happen at private universities like Harvard or Stanford, and I would like to think it shouldn’t happen at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has played a more central role in defining and defending academic freedom than most other institutions in the United States.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom

The good thing in all of this are the number of alternate outlets, like the one I have here at Big Think, that are willing to champion the kinds of people like Professor Cronon—people who personify the American ideals of personal, academic and political freedom.


Up Next