Challenging William Cronon and academic freedom: The Wisconsin case

When University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of history, geography and environmental studies William Cronon kicked off his new blog on March 15, 2011, he never expected that his post would add fuel to the debate about academic freedom and corporate incursion in education.

The blog post

On March 15, 2011, Professor Cronon created his blog, Scholar as Citizen, to encourage “the use of academic scholarship in providing useful perspectives on contemporary political debates.” His blog post, “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?,” included a study guide to help readers investigate the American Legislative Exchange Council which Cronon identified as the most important group influencing the upsurge of Republican legislation in Wisconsin.

Less than two days later, Republican Party staffer Stephan Thompson filed an open-records request for Cronon’s email account. The request included a string of keywords to focus the search. Cronon responded on his blog, saying that the request was a tactic to gather information that Thompson could use to intimidate him into silence.

Issues of privacy

Cronon voiced concerns not only for himself, but also for the students and faculty members whose email correspondence to him would be subject to scrutiny as a result of the inquiry. He has raised the questions of whether this is a violation of student privacy and whether free discourse on academic research between colleagues would be stifled. Despite requests for clarification, Thompson has not yet given a reason for the records request; The Freedom of Information Act does not require one.

In her March 25, 2011, response to the open-records request, UW-Madison Chancellor Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin said that the university would comply with the law. She also stated that the University would consider the balance between open disclosure and academic freedom, adding, “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.”

Freedom of Information Act

The open-records request Thompson filed falls under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which exists to allow investigation of public officials. These open-records laws were enacted to ensure transparency in government and to ensure that public employees do not use state resources to further personal agendas or personal gain. It is Cronon’s assertion that the Republicans hope to find evidence that he is supporting the recall of Republican senators.

A similar case

Cronon’s case is reminiscent of UVA v. Cuccinelli. In April 2010, Virginia State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli failed in an attempt to subpoena thousands of emails between Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climate-change scientist, and other scientists across the globe. Cuccinelli alleged that Mann was engaged in academic fraud. As described in a blog post on on October 21, 2010, “Cuccinelli’s relentless campaign to waste Virginia taxpayer money attacking Mann continues, despite a total lack of evidence of any wrongdoing on UVA’s or Mann’s part. Instead the row hinges entirely on Cuccinelli’s zeal to pollute public discourse with his own climate denial, clogging the courts with a thinly veiled attack on academic freedom that the Washington Post labeled “a pernicious fishing expedition.”

Wisconsin’s political legacy

Wisconsin prides itself on its history of supporting government transparency. The capital city, Madison, was named after the fourth U.S. President, James Madison, and is known as an advocate of individual liberty. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (FOIC), formed in 1978, aims to protect and promote access to public records and public meetings. In an ironic twist, as Cronon’s blog posts were coming under scrutiny, Wisconsin’s FOIC was celebrating the 260th anniversary of Madison’s birth.

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