For those of you who’ve missed it, AHA President-Elect and blogger William Cronon is the target of a Freedom of Information Act request, made by the Wisconsin Republican Party, for the contents of his university e-mail account. The request is in retaliation against Cronon’s blog post about the Wisconsin GOP’s anti-union bill, and Cronon has indicated that he will fight the request on academic freedom grounds.
I’ve been delayed by research travel in responding to this story. Since Cronon publicized the FOIA request four days ago, a number of commentators, including some conservatives, have jumped to Cronon’s defense. What’s piqued my interest is that a
left-wing historian and blogger, Cliopatria‘s Chris Bray, has in comments and a post argued forcefully that Cronon’s response is illegitimate and wrongheaded. I encourage you to read Chris’s well-reasoned, if at times intemperate, words; they’ve made me think about the issue in new ways.
In essence, Chris’s argument is that Cronon engaged in a political attack against the Wisconsin Republican party, and is now crying foul when the Republicans respond with a counterattack. The request for Cronon’s e-mails isn’t harassment because Cronon is a state employee and shouldn’t have been corresponding about politics using his state e-mail (Cronon states that he hasn’t, in fact, done so), and it’s not a violation of academic freedom because Cronon wasn’t blogging on an academic matter. Furthermore, since Cronon’s job isn’t in jeopardy (he’s a tenured professor), he shouldn’t have to worry about the results of a fishing expedition through his e-mail, almost no matter what’s in there. Finally, Chris is particularly peeved about the use or misuse of academic freedom, as he sees Cronon’s application of that principle as an improper attempt to indemnify him from any punishment at all for anything he could possibly do as a private citizen.
I’ve taken a day or two to consider Chris’s points. A couple of things seem worth mentioning:
1) Just because Cronon is untouchable as a tenured professor doesn’t mean his objections to the FOIA are trivial. A good rule of thumb would be to ask, what would happen if the same tactics were used against a blogging assistant professor or graduate student? If you’re still comfortable with the FOIA and its consequences, then fine. If not, then you should view Cronon as acting in defense of his less-privileged colleagues in the profession who might be slapped with similar requests in the future.
2) Both Cronon and his critics see harassment potential from this request only because the content of the e-mails could be used against Cronon professionally (I agree with Chris that this is unlikely in Cronon’s case, but it could happen for a less-secure colleague). I’d like to suggest that another type of harassment should be considered: that of undue hardship. Fulfilling the sort of FOIA that Cronon received, including seeking out and forwarding all the relevant e-mails, would take several hours. That doesn’t seem like much, but what if the Wisconsin Republican Party decided to send Cronon 200 of these requests a week? I’m given to understand that this happens fairly frequently in political campaigns — if you want to snarl the governor’s office in paperwork while he’s running for reelection, send them dozens of meaningless open records requests and watch them scramble to fill them. That’s a hardship and an abuse of the system for a staffed office, but for a busy assistant professor or graduate student it could be the time commitment that keeps a dissertation from being completed or a book from being published, derailing someone’s career. Do we really want to subject professors to that sort of threat just because they write op-eds on political issues? How is that not going to have a chilling effect on all political speech among state-employed academics?
3) Another problem with the records request is that it has the potential to drag others through the mud for no good or related reason. For instance, let’s say Cronon had in his e-mail box a four-month-old e-mail, sent by a colleague to the departmental mailing list, that was ill-advised and considered offensive by some. Cronon’s colleague was reprimanded by the department, apologized, stepped down from an internal leadership post, and made amends to those who were offended. In other words, the situation’s already been handled. But suddenly, the FOIA results in this e-mail (which contained the word “recall,” let’s say, so was flagged by the FOIA) being dragged into the public eye. The colleague could be forced to leave the department over something that’s completely unrelated to Cronon’s blog and that’s already been handled satisfactorily. Is this right, that Cronon’s friends should be made to fear for their jobs because he angered the wrong people? Does this not violate the academic’s right to free speech and free inquiry?
I don’t believe these scenarios are far-fetched. In fact, one of them is a thinly-veiled reference to an experience I myself have had. It’s for these reasons that I’ve decided to join the American Association of University Professors, an organization with a long history of defending the academic freedom of its members, and whose letter in defense of Cronon is impressive. And it’s for this reason that I can’t agree with Chris’s well-argued view of Cronon’s handling of the situation. Chris may be right that academic freedom is a problematic argument for protecting Cronon’s e-mails, but there still needs to be some way of defining a difference between the public speech of academics and that of other public employees, as far as retaliatory measures go. If I’m not alone in feeling that it’s a social good for academics at all levels to contribute to the national political conversation, then we need to protect them from harassing tactics they are ill-equipped to withstand.
[Update] See Chris’s response here.