Sunday, April 3, 2011

No, Wisconsin, I won't help you

I’m apparently on a number of mailing lists that I don’t want to be on, but whatever.

(You’d think people would bother to look up where I work and what I cover. But they don’t. Because they’re lazy.)

Case in point, the other day AFT send me a press release about the pissing match going on between the Republican lawmakers out in Wisconsin and the teacher union.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin wants a professor to turn over his emails to them. The AFT complains that it’s really a ploy to embarrass him and they don’t want to do it.

So, they send a bunch of reporters this release.

I responded and they responded back.

I’m sure the Republicans will use the information against the union, if it’s damning.

But so what? It’s public information. Don’t write stupid crap in public records.

Here's the dialogue.

The first email:

Statement by Randi Weingarten, president, American Federation of Teachers, on Wisconsin Republican Party’s FOI requests for university faculties emails.

The Wisconsin Republican Party and others filed Freedom of Information Act requests for e-mails sent by William Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who has criticized the recent anti-union legislative actions of Gov. Scott Walker and others. The requests were for e-mails from his university e-mail account containing a wide range of terms, including the word “Republican” and the names of certain Republican politicians.

WASHINGTON—The information requests by the Republican Party of Wisconsin and conservative think tanks such as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are nothing more than attempts to intimidate university faculty members. Clearly, their goal is not to seek the best solutions for the economic problems we face in the states and as a country, but rather to shut down open political discourse and to limit the academic freedom of professors whose independent voice has always been a critical component of public debate. It is time for politicians and policymakers to stop vilifying educators and public employees, and tackle the real work of strengthening our schools, institutions of higher education and public services so we can get our state economies back on track.


The AFT represents 1.5 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.

Here’s my response:


Couple quick questions.

I'm not up-to-speed on Wisconsin open records laws, but regardless . . .

Don't you think you subvert the freedom of information by not releasing these emails and, perhaps, set a precedent by not releasing them?

I have no dog in this fight (although I'm watching it closely since there is some overlap with a teacher union battle here in Tennessee), but if you have nothing to hide, then why not release the emails?

Then defend yourself if there's an issue over their content.
I don't know. Maybe it's just me.

But I don't think you're going to find much sympathy from a reporter.


Mike Donila

Do you think they had a good answer? Hell no. They send me some BS editorial written by one of their own that appeared in the New York Times. Don’t bother reading the crap. Just look at the one bold telling sentence I underlined. And note that the writer is wrong. The open records law applies to all public officials. And yes, university professors are public officials if they're getting paid with tax dollars.

I don’t care what your political leaning is. If you’re a reporter and you want to defend them for keep the emails private, then you suck.

This is what they sent me (The American Thought Police by Paul Krugman):

Recently William Cronon, a historian who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, decided to weigh in on his state’s political turmoil. He started a blog, “Scholar as Citizen,” devoting his first post to the role of the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council in pushing hard-line conservative legislation at the state level. Then he published an opinion piece in The Times, suggesting that Wisconsin’s Republican governor has turned his back on the state’s long tradition of “neighborliness, decency and mutual respect.”

So what was the G.O.P.’s response? A demand for copies of all e-mails sent to or from Mr. Cronon’s university mail account containing any of a wide range of terms, including the word “Republican” and the names of a number of Republican politicians.

If this action strikes you as no big deal, you’re missing the point. The hard right —which these days is more or less synonymous with the Republican Party — has a modus operandi when it comes to scholars expressing views it dislikes: never mind the substance, go for the smear. And that demand for copies of e-mails is obviously motivated by no more than a hope that it will provide something, anything, that can be used to subject Mr. Cronon to the usual treatment.

The Cronon affair, then, is one more indicator of just how reflexively vindictive, how un-American, one of our two great political parties has become.

The demand for Mr. Cronon’s correspondence has obvious parallels with the ongoing smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists, which has lately relied heavily on supposedly damaging quotations found in e-mail records.

Back in 2009 climate skeptics got hold of more than a thousand e-mails between researchers at the Climate Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

Nothing in the correspondence suggested any kind of scientific impropriety; at most, we learned — I know this will shock you — that scientists are human beings, who occasionally say snide things about people they dislike.

But that didn’t stop the usual suspects from proclaiming that they had uncovered “Climategate,” a scientific scandal that somehow invalidates the vast array of evidence for man-made climate change. And this fake scandal gives an indication of what the Wisconsin G.O.P. presumably hopes to do to Mr. Cronon.

After all, if you go through a large number of messages looking for lines that can be made to sound bad, you’re bound to find a few. In fact, it’s surprising how few such lines the critics managed to find in the “Climategate” trove: much of the smear has focused on just one e-mail, in which a researcher talks about using a “trick” to “hide the decline” in a particular series. In context, it’s clear that he’s talking about making an effective graphical presentation, not about suppressing evidence. But the right wants a scandal, and won’t take no for an answer.

Is there any doubt that Wisconsin Republicans are hoping for a similar “success” against Mr. Cronon?

Now, in this case they’ll probably come up dry. Mr. Cronon writes on his blog that he has been careful never to use his university e-mail for personal business, exhibiting a scrupulousness that’s neither common nor expected in the academic world. (Full disclosure: I have, at times, used my university e-mail to remind my wife to feed the cats, confirm dinner plans with friends, etc.)

Beyond that, Mr. Cronon — the president-elect of the American Historical Association — has a secure reputation as a towering figure in his field. His magnificent “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” is the best work ofeconomic and business history I’ve ever read — and I read a lot of that kind of thing.

So we don’t need to worry about Mr. Cronon — but we should worry a lot about the wider effect of attacks like the one he’s facing.

Legally, Republicans may be within their rights: Wisconsin’s open records law provides public access to e-mails of government employees, although the law was clearly intended to apply to state officials, not university professors. But there’s a clear chilling effect when scholars know that they may face witch hunts whenever they say things the G.O.P. doesn’t like.

Someone like Mr. Cronon can stand up to the pressure. But less eminent and established researchers won’t just become reluctant to act as concerned citizens, weighing in on current debates; they’ll be deterred from even doing research on topics that might get them in trouble.

What’s at stake here, in other words, is whether we’re going to have an open national discourse in which scholars feel free to go wherever the evidence takes them, and to contribute to public understanding. Republicans, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, are trying to shut that kind of discourse down. It’s up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fact-check: Krugman is not an AFT member-- so I think your reference to Krugman as "one of their own" is incorrect, unless I've misunderstood what you meant by that.

On the broader issue-- one of the jobs of a university professor is to carry our research that may lead to new, sometimes controversial ideas or insights. Requiring every professor's e-mail to be public would be a good idea if your goal is to make professors cautious, fearful & avoid any kind of research that might offend powerful politicians or financial interests.

And if their every e-mail should be public, why stop there? Why not require all phone conversations to be taped, and FOIA-able? The principle is the same whether the communication is by voice, e-mail, text message, whatever.

But if you think it's in the public interest for professors to follow facts & analysis wherever they lead, and not have to look over their shoulder every time they discuss their scholarship-- then some zone of privacy isn't a crazy idea.

For instance, think about how eliminating privacy for professors' communications would affect their ability to develop research on:
** how much oil was really released in the BP oil spill.
** whether abstinence-education programs reduce teen pregnancy.
** trends in poverty among old people with the decline of traditional pensions & rise in 401(k)s.
I'm sure you could come up with your own list, which would probably be different from mine-- but the point's the same.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot: think about what it would do to journalism if journalists were required to make all their e-mails public. "If you have nothing to hide, then why not release the emails?" That's an argument that applies equally against any kind of zone of privacy, any time-- and it's a weak one.