In March University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon posted an entry to his blog, Scholar as Citizen, calling for greater investigation into the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that proposes “model bills” for republicans to adopt in state legislatures nationally.
Stephan Thompson, of the Wisconsin Republican Party, responded to Cronon’s post by submitting a FOIA request for all emails sent from Cronon’s state-university account that referred to “republicans,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and certain labor unions and their leaders.
For Cronon and his supporters, Thompson’s FOIA request is an attempt to intimidate and embarrass the Wisconsin professor. In a subsequent blog post Cronon calls the FOIA request an attack on academic freedom, an abuse of the open records law, and an attempt to “prove that Bill Cronon has been engaging in…use of state emails to lobby for recall elections designed to defeat Republicans” (using public university resources to influence votes or political nominations is illegal by state law). Cronan argues that Thompson’s FOIA request, in the academic world in particular, “raises special concerns because such inquiries have often in the past been used to suppress unpopular ideas.”
Not everyone, however, agrees with Cronon. Jack Shafer of Slate magazine argues that “if university emails are under the purview of records requests, every citizen—even self-identified Republican Party apparatchiks—has every right to file a request.” Shafer makes the point that a significant number of FOIA requests are politically motivated and nevertheless held valid.
He quotes the Wisconsin open records law that we are “entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them,” which includes the affairs of public university professors.
What do you think? Is the Thompson FOIA request an attempt at censorship and intimidation? Or is Thompson simply exercising his right under Wisconsin law? Should public universities be subject to FOIA? Sound off in the comments section below!