Wisconsin GOP Tries to Silence UW Professor for Asking Questions

Mar 27 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Academic Freedom: the Right to Question

The Wisconsin GOP, already famous for bully-boy Stormtrooper tactics and disregard of decency has gone after a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, William Cronon, who specializes in history, geography and environmental studies and who is widely known as a moderate and non-partisan scholar, for asking who was really behind the series of anti-public employee union bills proposed in a number of states.

You would think Professor Cronon was apparently unaware of the New World Order taking shape in Wisconsin and Michigan and other states, a one-party dictatorship in which one does not question the official narrative. But that is not at all the case. Professor Cronon was quite aware of what was taking place in Wisconsin and as a scholar he attempted to examine those events from a scholarly, objective, and historical perspective.

He was, in short, doing what a scholar is supposed to do. The problem for Professor Cronon and others like him is that the GOP has already identified the “intelligentsia” (by which they seem to mean anybody with a higher than room-temperature IQ) as the “elite” and the “enemy”. Professor Cronon is especially guilty for being one of those evil “radical liberal” professors who are trying to reprogram our youth.

On his blog, Scholar as Citizen, Professor Cronon dared to ask a question about recent events in Wisconsin. As he explains in his March 24 summation:

Last week was quite a roller coaster for me. I spent the weekend of March 12-13 drafting an op-ed for the New York Times(published on March 22, and available at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/opinion/22cronon.html) about the several ways in which I believe that Scott Walker and the current leadership of the Republican Party in Wisconsin have departed not just from the longstanding culture of civility and good government in this state, but in fact from important traditions of their own party. In the course of writing that op-ed, I did some research trying to figure out where the current wave of conservative legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere might be coming from.

This seems fair enough and it is a legitimate question, after all. Professor Cronon goes on to explain,

As a result, last Tuesday night, March 15, I launched my first-ever entry for a blog I had long been planning on the theme of “Scholar as Citizen,” about how thoughtful scholarship can contribute to better understandings of issues and debates in the public realm. In my first blog entry, I published a study guide exploring the question “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?” I by no means had all the answers to this question, but I thought I had found enough useful leads that it was worth sharing them to help others investigate the American Legislative Exchange Council further. So I posted the link for the blog on Facebook and Twitter, sat back, and hoped that viral communication would bring the blog to people who might find it useful.

As professor Cronon says, his post was immediately successful, “Within two days, the blog had received over half a million hits, had been read by tens of thousands of people, had been linked by newspapers all over the United States, and had been visited by people from more than two dozen foreign countries.”

Unfortunately for the professor, the Wisconsin GOP had noticed him as well and found that Professor Cronon had sinned. Like the NPR, his was a voice they could not control and the message must be sent: do not question the official narrative.

Professor Cronon relates:

What I did not anticipate—though I guess I should have seen it coming, given everything else that has happened in Wisconsin over the past couple months—was the communication that the University of Wisconsin-Madison received on Thursday afternoon, March 17—less than two days after I posted my blog—formally requesting under the state’s Open Records Law copies of all emails sent from or received by my University of Wisconsin—Madison email address pertaining to matters raised in my blog. (The acronym in many other states and in the Federal government for the laws under which such a request is usually made is “FOIA,” named for the federal Freedom of Information Act. You can read the text of the Wisconsin Open Records Law here: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/stat0019.pdf,
and learn more about its application here:

Given the blatant disregard of the Wisconsin GOP for the law (might makes right) we should no longer be surprised that there was no attempt to disguise the political motivation behind this attack:

Remarkably, the request was sent to the university’s legal office by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, with no effort to obscure the political motivations behind it. Here’s what Mr. Thompson sent to the University’s attorneys:

From: Stephan Thompson [mailto:SThompson@wisgop.org]
Sent: Thursday, March 17, 2011 2:37 PM
To: Dowling, John
Subject: Open Records Request

Dear Mr. Dowling,

Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:
Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.

We are making this request under Chapter 19.32 of the Wisconsin state statutes, through the Open Records law. Specifically, we would like to cite the following section of Wis. Stat. 19.32 (2) that defines a public record as “anything recorded or preserved that has been created or is being kept by the agency. This includes tapes, films, charts, photographs, computer printouts, etc.”

Thank you for your prompt attention, and please make us aware of any costs in advance of preparation of this request.

Stephan Thompson
Republican Party of Wisconsin

Cronon admits to Thompson’s right to seek his records, “But since Mr. Thompson made no effort to hide his identity or his affiliation with the Republican Party, since his request came so soon after my ALEC study guide was published, and since he provided search terms to identify the particular emails that most interested him, it’s not too hard to connect the dots to figure out what this request is all about.”

Subjecting Mr. Thompson’s request to some “textual analysis” as a historian, Cronon comes to the conclusion “that my study guide about the role of ALEC in Wisconsin politics must come pretty close to hitting a bull’s-eye. Why else would the Republican Party of Wisconsin feel the need to single out a lone university professor for such uncomfortable attention?”

Why else indeed?

What they hope to do, as Professor Cronon recognizes, is to undermine a professional critic, in other words, to ruin him for daring to challenge their narrative by substituting a narrative about him “designed to undermine a professorial critic not only for misusing state email resources, but for being a puppet of the public employee unions which Mr. Thompson and his Republican allies would like the wider public to believe are chiefly responsible for criticisms of their policies.

The narrative they would like to spin about me seems pretty clear from the search terms they’ve included in their open records request. For instance, they name eleven politicians in that request. Three of these–Governor Scott Walker; Speaker of the Assembly Jeff Fitzgerald; and his brother, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald—are the Republican leaders who have engineered and led the policies that have produced so much upset in the State of Wisconsin over the past two months. They would thus likely be lightning rods for any inappropriately partisan emails one might be tempted to send as a state employee using a state email account.

But the other eight Republican legislators named in Mr. Thompson’s open records request are probably even more important: Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, and Mary Lazich. Why seek Bill Cronon’s emails relating to these individuals? Answer: because they’re the eight Republicans currently targeted by petition campaigns seeking to hold early recall elections in response to recent legislation.

It’s these eight names, in combination with a search for emails containing the words “Republican” and “recall,” that Mr. Thompson is hoping he can use to prove that Bill Cronon has been engaging in illegal use of state emails to lobby for recall elections designed to defeat Republicans who voted for the Governor’s Budget Repair Bill.

Professor Cronon makes his feelings clear in his March 24 summation of events:

My most important observation is that 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. 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.

It’s not the good old days anymore, Professor Cronon but he recognizes this, drawing parallels between today and the heady days of McCarthyism, when conservatives could bully their liberal critics into silence by threatening their livelihood:

In the op-ed I published in the New York Times on March 22, I drew a carefully delimited analogy between what is happening in Wisconsin today and the partisan turmoil that Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy worked so hard to create in the early 1950s. McCarthy, of course, thought nothing of trying to have university faculty members fired from their jobs because he believed they held objectionable political views—and many were indeed fired as a result. The kind of intervention happening in this case isn’t so overt: Mr. Thompson hasn’t yet issued a demand for me to be disciplined or fired. But it’s hard not to draw an analogy between this effort to seek of evidence of wrongdoing on my part (because I asked awkward but legitimate questions about an organization with close ties to the Republican Party) and the legal and professional consequences that might follow the discovery of such evidence.

Joe McCarthy was a master of using allegation and innuendo to tar the reputations of those he “investigated,” and I would argue that we should all be very firm in defending academic freedom across the entire political spectrum against that kind of political abuse. The fact that the Open Records Law is now available as a potential tool for undermining one’s enemies doesn’t make the resulting “investigations” any less sinister in their potentially chilling effects for the intellectual life of universities.

Not only did the Wisconsin GOP go after Cronon, they went after Dave Weigel at Slate for asking for a comment relating to the request. Apparently, as Weigel observes, even asking a question about the request is to be part of “a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government.” Never mind that the UW-Madison is not part of the government and that it is not “someone” seeking information of the government but the government seeking information of “someone.” It is not remotely the same thing.

If university professors aren’t safe, neither are journalists. At least Dave Weigel was far enough removed to avoid being “Joe Miller’ed” for his impertinence.

It was bad enough that President Bush did not answer questions, and it was worse when candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin said no questions could be asked; but now we have seen what the official Republican response has evolved into when they are in a position of power: Now not only may no questions be asked, but any such question is an attack and will earn an immediate attempt to ruin the questioner publicly.

Here we have seen the true face of the Republican regime to come. This, my fellow Americans, is what we can expect a “new and improved” Republican administration of this country to look like. Be good little drones, do as you’re told, and do not question authority because we will not only refuse to answer you but we will destroy you.



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