When should FOIA and Wisconsin’s Open Records Law apply to universities?But FOIA is not limited to cases of wrongdoing! If Prof. Cronon has done nothing wrong, why won't he share work emails from a work computer from a state university address with citizens who pay his salary?
Answer: When there is good reason to believe that wrongdoing has occurred. When formal academic governance proceedings are making important decisions that the public has a right to know about. When teachers engage in abusive relationships with their students. When the documents being requested have to do with official university business. And so on.
When should we be more cautious about applying such laws to universities?
Answer: When FOIA is used to harass individual faculty members for asking awkward questions, researching unpopular topics, making uncomfortable arguments, or pursuing lines of inquiry that powerful people would prefer to suppress. If that happens, FOIA and the Open Records Law can too easily become tools for silencing legitimate intellectual inquiries and voices of dissent—whether these emanate from the left or the right or (as in my case) the center. It is precisely this fear of intellectual inquiry being stifled by the abuse of state power that has long led scholars and scientists to cherish the phrase “academic freedom” as passionately as most Americans cherish such phrases as “free speech” and “the First Amendment.”
It is chilling indeed to think that the Republican Party of my state has asked to have access to the emails of a lone professor in the hope of finding messages they can use to attack and discredit that professor. It makes me wonder if they have given even the slightest thought to what would happen to the reputation of this state and of its universities if they were to succeed in such an effort.
It also makes me wonder how a party so passionate in its commitment to liberty and to protecting citizens from abuses of state power can justify resorting to this particular exercise of state power with the goal of trying to silence a critic of its own conduct.
Cronon claims he has nothing to hide, but he is acting as if he does. As a historian, he should realize that often the coverup is worse than the crime. Right now, his stonewalling reminds this blogger of Richard M. Nixon...