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Home » Clarion » 2011 » May 2011 » Academic Freedom at Issue in FOIA Requests

Academic Freedom at Issue in FOIA Requests


The fight over union rights in the Midwest has put professors in the crosshairs – not only as union members, but also as scholars.

On March 17, an official of the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a request with the University of Wisconsin-Madison legal office under the state’s Open Records Law (popularly known as a “FOIA request,” after the federal Freedom of Information Act). The request sought “copies of all e-mails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state e-mail account from January 1, 2011, to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining….” It was the beginning of a very long list.

Cronon is president-elect of the American Historical Association, and a professor of US history at UW-Madison. Just a few days before the Republican Party asked to go through his e-mails, Cronon had put up the first post on his new blog, Scholar as Citizen, about the apparent role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a GOP policy group, in designing and promoting state-level anti-union measures in Wisconsin and several other states. Within two days the post had received half a million hits.


“My study guide about the role of ALEC in Wisconsin politics must come pretty close to hitting a bull’s-eye,” commented Cronon. “Why else would the Republican Party of Wisconsin feel the need to single out a lone university professor for such uncomfortable attention?”

On March 25 and 28, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Michigan, followed suit with a FOIA request for the e-mail correspondence of professors at three labor studies programs at Michigan public universities.


“It sounds like they’re trying to catch us advocating for the recall or the election of a politician,” Roland Zullo, a professor at the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center, told Talking Points Memo.

Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, said that UW would comply with the request but would not release “private e-mail exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it.”

A UW statement explained why: “When faculty members use e-mail or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges,” it said. “Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created.”

The American Association of University Professors agreed with Cronon that the Wisconsin request was “an obvious assault on academic freedom” and applauded UW’s response.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten said that the e-mail requests “are nothing more than attempts to intimidate university faculty members. Clearly, their goal is…to shut down open political discourse and to limit the academic freedom of professors whose independent voice has always been a critical component of public debate,” Weingarten said.

A statement from the PSC affirmed that “such fishing expeditions threaten academic freedom and have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas on university campuses, and we stand with those who denounce this attack on academic freedom.”


It added that PSC members have a contractual right to use CUNY e-mail to communicate with other union members, but should also keep in mind that under CUNY policy, privacy of e-mails is not guaranteed. More information is on the PSC website.


RELATED COVERAGE: Walker Versus Workers, Fight Over Union Rights and Open Season on Academics

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