We’ve heard a lot about Wisconsin in the news over the past months, as Republican Governor Scott Walker took away the collective bargaining rights of public worker unions. What most of us have not heard is perhaps more frightening to those in higher education: transparency laws are being abused to violate the academic privacy of public university professors.
I am referring to the ongoing story that The New Yorker has called the “Cronon Affair,” which began when University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon criticized Governor Walker’s reactionary anti-union policies on his blog last month. State Republicans responded by invoking Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, which allows public access to information from state employees and agencies.
Their inquiry inconspicuously targeted all of Cronon’s email correspondence that contain the words “Republican,” “Scott Walker” and “union,” among others. Even to an outside observer, it is apparent that there were political motivations in this Open Records petition.
By opening Professor Cronon’s correspondence up to the public, lawmakers are misusing a law set up to provide governmental transparency and threatening the academic privacy arguably necessary for intellectual endeavors.
The question is not whether the GOP had the legal right to request those emails pursuant to Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, but whether they should be able to cite it with such obvious political motivations. While Cronon is a public employee, it is arguable whether his personal emails pertain to the “public interest,” as the statute requires. I doubt that the Open Records Law was passed with the intention of allowing politicians to intrude on the private correspondence of public workers. I believe that Governor Walker would agree with me in saying that the Open Records Law was created to increase governmental transparency and not for reasons of political manipulation.
If we look at Walker’s actions, we can see that he is skeptical of the Open Records Law. Last month, the governor refused multiple Open Records inquiries that were submitted to reveal emails he claimed to have received in support of his anti-union bill. This issue is certainly more relevant to the public interest than a professor’s emails. For a select group of Wisconsin lawmakers to target public university professors while their governor openly refuses those exact requests is hypocritical at best and dirty politics at worst.
With the actions of the governor in mind, the proper response in a society that professes democratic ideals would be to let your opponents voice their opposition without the threat of violating their privacy. Arguing otherwise runs the risk of abusing power and sacrificing academia to politics.
If I was a leftist version of Glenn Beck, I would compare Governor Walker to Hitler. I would cite the dangers of suppressing educators as a slippery slope to suppressing the media and eventually to suppressing general free thought. Sadly for Beck and conspiracy theorists everywhere, the implications of the Cronon Affair do not speak to a dystopian future orchestrated by a fascist dictatorship. Rather, they represent the warning signs of a substantive threat to academic privacy at public universities.
The danger of such policies is that they intimidate public workers at all levels into not having a political voice. While this may not be the case in strongly Democratic California, public workers should be bothered by the politicized infringement of intellectual and academic privacy elsewhere.
If the plan was to tarnish Cronon’s name and silence his message, that plan failed. Cronon has continued to blog about the Open Records proceedings and his blog has become hugely popular. While the Internet facilitates both legal and illegal privacy invasions, it also makes it easier to voice the mistakes and shady behaviors of public officials.
The importance of privacy for public workers is vital. State workers at all levels Ń from the DMV up to the university Ń should not feel as though their employment as public workers limits their political freedom, especially when it comes to policies that directly affect their lives. Rather, public workers should continue to voice their opinions loudly and without fear, so that they can properly inform the public of the importance of their jobs for the well-being of the state at large.
Some believe Wisconsin is the first battleground for national conservative movements to cut public education, eliminate welfare spending and dismantle pro-union policies. If Wisconsin is a dry run for things to come, Republicans nationwide should expect strong opposition to be the norm. Further, they should be wary that history books are written by university professors and that people like William Cronon are watching. If the GOP’s budget plan requires an attack on public unions, they should avoid earning even more infamy by stifling dissent through intimidation.
Tyler Hunt is a second-year political science major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.