Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | March 28, 2011

Thoughts on William Cronon and Academic Freedom

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.

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  1. First, Chis Bray isn’t left-wing. Or right-wing. Or centrist. Anti-authoritarian empiricist with libertarian leanings and no tolerance for Bullshit, perhaps? I gave up years ago.

    Usually I find his arguments powerful, if not always persuasive. In this case I think he’s gone quite wrong, though, in ignoring the difference between rhetorical and institutional attacks, and drawing a too-sharp distinction between the freedom to research and publish, and the freedom to offer studied generalist commentary.

  2. Thanks for the correction, which I’ve added to the post. I suppose I made the mistake because he’s always well to my left on foreign policy — but then so is Ron Paul, so there you have it.

    I share your sense of the flaws in his argument, but I also find the argument itself hard to dismiss. I DO think there’s some difficulty in saying that a professor should be able to blog against the governor with impunity, but the department secretary should lose his job for doing the same thing. The “academic freedom” argument doesn’t quite capture what’s wrong with this FOIA request; it’s more an issue of harassment of a type of government employee who can’t afford to withstand it. The problem is that’s a more difficult case to make in court, so I understand where Cronon is coming from.

  3. First, god bless Jonathan Dresner: ” Anti-authoritarian empiricist with libertarian leanings and no tolerance for Bullshit, perhaps?” I’m going to have that printed on t-shirts. I try to not be a left-winger or a right-winger, and I hope to merit your description. Maybe not this time, but what the hell.

    Jeremy, about this: ” 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?”

    I’d be more concerned, and I’ve talked a bit about that at Cliopatria. But I’d also suggest a different question: What would happen if the same tactics were used against a blogging prosecutor or welfare case worker? Two prosecutors have been fired in Indiana because of their stupid comments on the protests in Wisconsin. One suggested that the state police clear the capitol building “with live ammunition,” and one wrote to Scott Walker to suggest that he stage a false flag attack against himself by fake union thugs. Both were fired. Neither said that hey, wait a minute, I’m an officer of the court — an attack on me is an attack on the dignity of our justice system.

    In Cronon’s case — which doesn’t directly compare, but more about that in a moment — my view is that Cronon participated in politics, then retreated behind a claim about his status and identity: I can engage in political attacks, but I can’t be politically attacked, because such an attack aggresses against academic freedom. I think this kind of claim of privilege can be dangerous, because it makes people outside academia generally suspicious of the claim. When you cry “academic freedom,” there should be a very clear matter of academic freedom at hand, or you’re diluting the strength of the shelter.

    Cronon didn’t behave recklessly, as the prosecutors I discuss above clearly did. He made a reasoned and factual political argument, although I think it wasn’t as strong as he believes. But he nevertheless made a political argument, and ought to handle the blowback as a political attack on a political player, not as a political attack on a disinterested scholar commenting from a remove.

    Quickly, about the possibility that a professor could be flooded with public records requests, I think the UW’s lawyers could crush that kind of thing pretty easily. I haven’t read the public records law in Wisconsin, but I’ve read and used the public records law in California, and I think these laws tend to include substantial protections for governments, protecting them against harassment, overly broad requests, and so on. Also, state public records laws include substantial exemptions, especially for things like student records. I think anyone trying to fish embarrassment out of Cronon’s mailbox will run into a squad of agitated university lawyers.

    Thanks for this — an interesting and enjoyable discussion.

  4. Of course a professor OR secretary should be able to blog with impunity on political matters. Not without fear of criticism, but their job should be in no danger whatsoever. What’s at stake here is whether they should be subject to punitive, penny-ante harrassment as a result. Using an email account for political purposes (and I don’t accept that characterization at face value, either) is the smallest possible infraction of the anti-corruption laws governing the separation of state officials’ duties from political campaigning, which were designed to prevent considerably greater abuses.

  5. Jonathan, agreed completely.

    Chris, thanks very much for the thoughtful response. I think where we differ is that you see Cronon’s actions as those of a political player, and I see them as those of an ordinary citizen. The fact that Cronon is a big name with NYT connections and an endowed chair is not relevant because, as I noted above, he’s doing this on behalf of those potentially under similar threat who don’t have those protections. So as an ordinary citizen, even a famous one, he needs to be able to criticize the powerful without being subjected to what Jonathan describes as “penny-ante harassment” in retaliation. If Russ Feingold wrote the blog post, I’d feel differently; he’s a political player. I don’t believe academics are political players unless they run for office (like James MacGregor Burns) or serve as a formal advisor on a campaign (like Sean Wilentz). As an ordinary citizen, Cronon has the right to make statements against the government without the government or its political supporters retaliating against him. You’re right that his status as a state employee complicates matters, and I agree with you that the academic freedom defense is problematic, though I can’t say I might not try the same move in his position. But I don’t think that just because Cronon published an op-ed in the NYT that he becomes a political player and not an ordinary citizen. I published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle once; does that mean I’m one of the big boys now and the Republicans would be justified in going after me tooth and nail?

  6. […] old blogging friend Jeremy Young points to the time burden on people whose email is requested, in the federal government, the selection […]

  7. To the extent I can address some of this from the federal perspective (and you know I am limited in what I can say), since I spent years doing disclosure review, see

  8. Here’s what I wrote at Maarja’s place:

    Maarja, thanks for the mention, and I’m glad you finally took my long-ago advice in that Cliopatria thread and started your own blog!

    I recognize that you’re somewhat limited in what you can say here, but here’s my two cents: the reason we have a Presidential Records Act is that disclosure rules need to be different where there is a compelling national interest, as there clearly is in the Presidency. I don’t believe records managers or archivists should be subject to the same sort of sunshine provisions, nor should academics. In both cases the reason is the same: it allows these people to do their jobs better when their private and personal communications are not subject to publication. With Presidents it’s just the opposite: they do better work if they know we’re watching. (Just look at Nixon’s Cambodia bombings to see what happens when they know we’re not.) That’s the key distinction here. Presidents from Nixon to Clinton to George W. Bush have asserted executive privilege to keep the people from knowing their business, wrongly so in every case. The laws must reflect a clear distinction between those whose personal and official communications must vitally be revealed to the public, and those whose communications should remain private absent a compelling national interest. (There are, of course, exceptions. A professor accused of taking bribes in exchange for scholarship should obviously be subject to disclosure laws, but that would happen anyway as part of a criminal investigation.)

    Fascinating, though, isn’t it, that Cronon’s been caught making a similar argument to Nixon! Certainly makes you think, even though I think what Cronon’s done is legitimate.

  9. Thanks, Jeremy. From my perspective as a former archivist and a current federal historian, it’s all about the law. Of course, I am accustomed to a compliance and regulatory environment, it’s all I’ve ever known in my employment situation. All my jobs have been in the public sector as a fed. The upside is you learn some fascinating stuff about how everything works in DC. And you get to participate in some great assignments. Some of mine at NARA had the public as a beneficiary client, of course. It all balances out, at least for me. Even in my private email, I tend to write in “discoverable language” but that just may be me, LOL.

  10. More on situational awareness:

  11. Hi, Jeremy, thanks for the follow up query at my blog. I posted a response late last night (early this morning), which I amended just now. I’ve never worked as a records manager. Since most universities, especially state ones, presumably have RMs, you might want to check institutional web sites for more info on them. Not having worked as one, I know only the broad outlines of the work.

  12. […] government, not on campus. I’ll leave the political and the academic issues to others, including Jeremy. However, I can say that submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests actually has led to […]

  13. You’ll probably get a pingback but I put up a new post this morning, explaining what can be gleaned through FOIA requests for records of government archivists and records managers. I understand why you believe their records should not fall under sunshine laws. My essay presents another view for you to consdier. I threw it together quickly as I can only write blog posts from home. Occasionally I publish publicly some previously privately published ones on my wireless device during my lunch break but that is a cumbersome process. Yeah, we feds do have a lot of situational awareness on these issues, that’s for sure.

  14. […] ‘Thoughts on William Cronon and Academic Freedom,’ The Crolian Progressive, 28 March. […]

  15. I’ll recommend that readers check out Maarja’s latest post — it offers some really thoughtful commentary on the whole issue.

  16. Many thanks for the recommendation, Jeremy. If you have time, look back at the White House email post. I had time this evening to insert the images which illustrate how NARA did not initially show in interrogatory responses it filed that Nixon was the source of requested deletions to Watergate Special Prosecutor Force tapes. Embarrassingly enough, Nixon’s own interrogatory response, filed after I and others testified that he was the source, admitted what the nation’s record keeper initially did not. I’ve included an image of that as well. I dare say scholars who read the initial reports in NYT in 1991 assumed that when NARA’s spokeswoman said Nixon had no objections to the Watergate tapes release, that was the end of the story.

  17. Not only does the ability to obtain a few documents released through FOIA lead to glimpses of what was happening internally, discussing them can trigger extremely useful recollections of occurrences not previously discussed publicly. For a very useful connect the dots take on what happened during the first Bush administration and later, see This came in part due to on and off line convos about a few government documents released under FOIA.

  18. I’ve read some of the arguments on HNN about this and wondered why no one has brought up the precedent of the CRU hack aka Climategate depending on one’s political leanings.

    To describe a complicated situation very briefly, climate scientists at University of East Anglia were deluged with FOIA requests from bloggers trying to disprove AGW. Then their computers were illegally hacked into and emails stolen. Selected emails were produced by the hackers and widely dispersed, taken out of context and distorted in a prolonged effort to discredit the scientists.

    Cronon is quite correct to see the FOI request as an attack on him, and the people making the request may well have learned their tactics from the AGW deniers (or could be some of the same people).

    If your enemy demands to look at your emails, be sure that he will pick out anything that can be used or misused to make you look bad and use it to smear your name all over the internet.

    Links: see page 33 of this report about the increase FOIA requests at UEA:

    Summary of links about the CRU hack:

    Making some connections:

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