William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas research professor of history, geography and environmental studies at Wisconsin–Madison, authored an opinion article published in The New York Times on 22 March criticising Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, and his plan to strip collective bargaining rights from public-sector workers.
Prior to the publication of that piece, Professor Cronon discussed the issue and invited feedback from readers via his personal blog in a 15 March post entitled, “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?”
Two days later, a representative of the Republican Party of Wisconsin contacted Wisconsin-Madison’s legal services department. Citing Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, he requested copies of all emails sent from Professor Cronon’s university account after 1 January 2011 containing keywords such as “Republican”, “Scott Walker”, “collective bargaining”, “rally” and “union”.
Responding in his blog, Professor Cronon accuses the state Republican Party of tactics intended to “embarrass, undermine and ultimately silence” him.
Calling their request “an abuse of law and procedure”, Professor Cronon writes: “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.”
Wisconsin-Madison’s policies on email usage include an edict that “university employees may not use these resources to support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum”.
Professor Cronon alleges that the state Republican Party hopes to find evidence of such activity in an effort to discredit his arguments.
He further warns of the “chilling effects” on the intellectual life of public universities if the request is successful and the university is required to release the emails. This would “undermine the university’s longstanding reputation for defending academic freedom,” he adds.