On March 15, University of Wisconsin professor of history William Cronon posted a blog about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a rightwing national group that develops bills for Republican state legislators. Cronon wrote that ALEC is more powerful than the Koch brothers, adding: it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills it seeks to promote.
Two days later, the Republican Party of Wisconsin sought “copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present” that made reference to Gov. Walker and other state Republicans, as well as collective bargaining and Wisconsin unions.
Cronon responded forcefully.
“I find it simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state’s Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity,” he wrote on his blog. “I’m offended by this not just because it’s yet another abuse of law and procedure that has seemingly become standard operating procedure for the state’s Republican Party under Governor Walker, but because it’s such an obvious assault on academic freedom at a great research university that helped invent the concept of academic freedom way back in 1894.”
On March 22, The New York Times published an op-ed by Cronon not on the harassment he was receiving but on the public tactics of Gov. Walker. “The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees,” Cronon wrote. “It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect.”
Once news of the Republican hunt for Cronon’s e-mails went viral, many members of the media and academia rallied to Cronon’s support.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin responded by blaming Cronon for his “deplorable tactics in seeking to force the Republican Party of Wisconsin to withdraw a routine open records request,” according to a March 25 press release by Katie McCallum, communications director for the Wisconsin Republican Party,
The state Republican Party’s executive director, Mark Jefferson, went further in the release, stating:
“I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government. Further, it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request. Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner.”
On his blog, Cronon discussed what he thought the Wisconsin Republic Party was up to.
“It’s not too hard to connect the dots to figure out what this request is all about,” Cronon wrote. “It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to infer that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues aren’t particularly eager to have a state university professor asking awkward questions about the dealings of state Republicans with the American Legislative Exchange Council. This open records request apparently seemed to Mr. Thompson to be a good way to discourage me from sticking my nose in places he doesn’t think it belongs…. His open records request seems designed to give him what he hopes will be ammunition he can use to embarrass, undermine, and ultimately silence me.”
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