Using open government laws to persecute professors

A juicy little flap in the upper Midwest pits two valued traditions in a faceoff where any victory is likely to leave a sour aftertaste and a dubious precedent. At issue: Must professors at state universities open their e-mail correspondence to public scrutiny, like any government workers covered by public records laws? Or would such disclosures strike not at official secrecy, but at the personal privacy and candid exchanges that are the lifeblood of academic inquiry?

At the center of the dustup is William Cronon, a respected professor at the University of Wisconsin and president of the American Historical Society. On his blog and in a column in the New York Times in March, Cronon castigated Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans for their controversial assault on the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public employees.

Cronon’s scoldings prompted the Wisconsin Republican Party to file a request under the state’s public records law for e-mails he’d written over the previous four months that contained any of 20 terms, including “Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, rally, union” and a handful of names of legislators.

A few days later, across Lake Michigan, a conservative outfit called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy made a similar public records request to the labor studies departments of three state universities—Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State. Mackinac was also trolling for e-mails, looking for references to Scott Walker; Madison, Wisconsin; or, interestingly, Rachel Maddow, the left-leaning MSNBC commentator.

It’s not surprising that the inquiries angered academic leaders, and Cary Nelson, the American Association of University Professors president, denounced them on NPR as “a contemporary version of McCarthyism.”

But among journalists, public records laws are much beloved. News media view them as a potent weapon against governmental secrecy and an essential tool for holding officials accountable. Still, the inquiries divided press advocates. On one side, The New York Times denounced “a shabby crusade in Wisconsin,” and James Fallows, Atlantic magazine columnist, saw a “flat-out effort at personal intimidation.”

But on the other, Slate’s Jack Shafer argued that the value of open records laws outweighs the danger they might be used in questionable ways: “As essential as academic freedom may be for the free exchange and exploration of ideas, I believe [the laws] should almost always trump it.”

And interviewed on On the Media, Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was unambiguous. State university professors are public employees; therefore their communications are the public’s business. “Whether or not [their] academic freedom is violated has nothing to do with the open records statute,” Dalglish said.

Admirably clear, but hardly satisfying. Academic work is untidy and often untranslatable. Often it has to be conducted out of the public gaze: A candid critique of a journal submission, a bruising spat with an editor about an overdue manuscript, a half-baked idea for a course, remarks about student performance.

Like memos between a judge and her clerk, such matters must be handled discreetly; academic life can’t flourish otherwise. That need for privacy doesn’t change just because the professor’s employer gets tax money (less than one dollar in four, in Wisconsin’s case.)

Now, the current e-mail demands come from conservatives who claim they want to be sure professors aren’t helping rally support for recall votes or referenda. (That would violate university rules against politicking by faculty.) But why scour e-mails? Wouldn’t public organizing be obvious publicly?

The idea that these inquiries are meant to flush out furtive political organizing by college professors is a fig leaf. It’s also a hoot. I’m an academic and I work with academics, and I can tell you that the mice in my basement have better organizing capabilities than most university faculty. With enough help (and enough meetings), a group of college professors might be able to pull off a bake sale; but a political movement? Not hardly.

But the real target isn’t politicking at all. The goal is to cherry-pick unguarded remarks by faculty who are critical of today’s wave of union-busting. Their comments will then be gathered and brandished not to halt already prohibited activities, but to try to stigmatize the professors as ideologues. The target, it seems clear, is their writings—and, ultimately, their classrooms.

Already, with unrelenting budget cuts and steadily degraded working conditions, public college professors are virtually an endangered species. They need not exposure, but protection. Maybe there’s a good argument why they should be covered by public records laws, but I haven’t heard it. Let those laws focus on real officeholders, while those academics cling to what’s left of the space they need to survive in their beleaguered bastion of thought and expression.

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