Wisconsin GOP uses sunshine laws to harass prof who speculated about links with pressure group

William Cronon is a historian at the University of Wisconsin -- Madison. His work has recently led him into an inquiry into the shift in Republican policy in his state, and he published some preliminary notes linking that change to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, a conservative pressure group that drafts "model bills" that it promulgates through its members, including many local, state and national legislators; they claim responsibility for Arizona's controversial immigration legislation).

Cronon's speculation about ALEC's link to Wisconsin politics has hit a nerve: for the first time in his career, the chaired, tenured professor has found himself to be the subject of a freedom of information act request from the Republican Party of Wisconsin, seeking the disclosure of any emails relating to Republicans in general, ALEC, various Republican politicians, labor, unions, etc.

Cronon is understandably alarmed: it appears that the Republican party is using sunshine laws to harass scholars who investigate its workings; Cronon points out that the inquiry that the GOP has requested will result in the unlawful disclosure of academic reports on students, as well as confidential (but not improper) discussions with other scholars. He thinks that the GOP is looking for a pretense in his email -- some personal or political communique that violates state rules against using his official email for personal work -- with which to discredit him.

Cronon claims that there is no such skeleton in his closet -- but he still wants to fight the disclosure, on the grounds that it is an improper use of sunshine laws for partisan intimidation.

In the meantime, there's a Streisand Effect aborning: if the Wisconsin Republican Party goes berserk any time someone speculates about a link between it and ALEC, well, perhaps more of us should be looking more closely at whether such a connection exists.

Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom (Thanks, SalJake, via Submitterator)


  1. Transference. The guilty always try to defame their opponents before their opponents find the huge mote in the eye of the guilty.

  2. I like how “limited government” means using your political position to bully your political opponents.

    1. “Limited government” as far as these guys are concerned is disingenuous. They mean “limited government (not controlled by us).” The government can be as huge as possible as long as they’re in control. The fact that the illusion of representation and bureaucratic procedures get in their way is why they can pretty much always fly the “limited government” flag. It’s a “if we can’t control the government, then the government shouldn’t have any power” stance.

      1. Spot on. Same goes for “free market” and “federalism” that ALEC seems so keen on. Good concepts, so long as it benefits them and allows them control.

  3. If the message is true and can not be ignored, it is best to kill the messenger, I guess.

    I hope this causes Scott Walker a lot of pain.

  4. Faux-FOI fishing/harassing from the political right? Who’da thunk? This is their SOP in the Climate Wars [tm].

  5. An academic friend says this: “The crazier thing is I know Bill Cronon. It would be harder to find a more mild-mannered, centrist, fair-minded, honest and unpretentious scholar. That the GOP is now going after guys like him really exposes how extreme they have become.”

  6. @JonStewartMill:

    I think it says more about their confidence that they can get away with taking down a non-controversial person, as opposed to someone obviously “on the other side.” They’ve always been extreme.

  7. Thanks Boing Boing for continuing to cover the Republican party’s increasingly ridiculous power grab in Wisconsin.

    It’s painful to read the news right now, as we’re seeing measures proposed daily that continue to erode the middle class and privatize everything.

    I’m also thankful for my Madison neighbors that continue to protest and get the word out about the April 5th elections so we can try to turn this around.


    1. There has been little academic freedom in the hard sciences in Canada for a long time. Remember when all research into whether or not the no-knock additives in our gas, which have been banned in several other countries, was cancelled as it was consider libellous to the oil companies to imply that there might be some detrimental effects on infant nervous systems?

      More recently one of Dear Leader Harper’s stooges stood up and denounced the “terrible waste of taxpayers money”* involved into a study of “the sex life of squirrels”. The then cancelled study in question did not contain the word “sex” and was in fact a study into the reproductive cycles of several species of squirrels and why they are increasingly not having them: ie – they’re all going sterile. What was really being objected to was the possibility of a link between chemical contamination and mammal sterility. Such a link might impact on the quarterly profits of our chemical companies and, as an employee of these corporations, Dear Leader Harper can’t tolerate that.

      Good thing that God put a magic forcefield around our balls so that such things can’t happen to humans.

      * As opposed to the $1,000,000,000 budget for failing to provide security for the piddling photo-op of the Toronto G20 conference.

  8. Apparently ALEC is big on irony. The ALEC mission statement begins with “…to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty…”

    Jefferson distrusted corporations and believed their power should be limited and disliked inherited wealth – “Aristocracy”. To see ALEC attempt to portray themselves as Jeffersonian is doublespeak worthy of Orwell’s best.


  9. While this is obviously an attempt at intimidation, and definitely a Streisand effect catalyst, the professor’s mention of confidential exchanges on his work e-mail.

    As a longtime state employee myself, one of the first lessons is that everything you write in your e-mail is, by default, a public record. If you want to have a confidential exchange, do it on personal e-mail sent from home, or better yet on the phone (e-mail sent from a personal account that are work business, while tough to get to, are also very much public records.)

    Student info should not be released at all under FERPA, and the university’s PR office should/will redact it.

    I write this because at the university where I work, profs often think tenure exempts them from disclosure, and get bit in the butt when it doesn’t. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that free access for all citizens to these records does so much more good than harm. Requests like this one suck, but the overall accountability this brings to public employees is a good thing.

  10. The University of Wisconsin has a long tradition of standing up for academic freedom (http://www.secfac.wisc.edu/SiftAndWinnow.htm). I am sure they will stand up for the excellent Prof Cronin.

    Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found – UW Board of Regents 1894

  11. To play devil’s advocate here, the FOIA has built in exemptions for this sort of stuff: exemption 6 (Personnel, medical and similar files, disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy) seems to protect student correspondences and, say, any personal emails to his wife. Exemption 5 (Inter- or intra-agency memoranda or letters which would not be available to a party in litigation with the agency) might justify correspondence with other professors, and there’s always exemption 3 (Information specifically exempted from disclosure by another statute) to cover any other odd situations this case brings to light.

    So if he redacts any student information, holds back professional correspondences, and sends along the rest in a couple years (he’s got to have ample time to redact all his emails), what’s the problem? FOIA is designed to keep government employees accountable for their actions as a government agent.

    1. FOIA is designed to keep government employees accountable for their actions as a government agent.

      And, of course, the GOP is managing to use the FOIA against its design and utilizing it for fear and intimidation in order to assist in keeping government employees unaccountable for their actions as government agents.

      what’s the problem?

      That’s the problem.

      1. This use of FOIA is not a problem. It may be petty and wasteful, or at least seem that way, but it is not a violation of the letter or the spirit of the law.

        All information available under FOIA is available to all, and there are not rules about WHY you need to access that information, at least until the courts become involved. And that means it is well within the GOP’s rights to ask for this information, although it seems they need to make a much more appropriately tailored request for what they’re looking for.

        If we impose rules in FOIA about what you intend to do with the information you are receiving, it becomes useless because thousands of additional loopholes would arise for people who are trying to hide things.

        1. “it is not a violation of the letter or the spirit of the law.”

          from the US Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act….

          “The United States Supreme Court has explained that “[t]he basic purpose of [the] FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.””

          how, when the Republican Party of Wisconsin asks for emails from one of it’s citizens, is this within the spirit of “hold(ing) governors accountable to the governed”?

          1. You are right that it might not be “hold(ing) governors accountable to the governed,” but they are, or at least conceivably could be, “check(ing” against corruption.”

            And maybe that’s not exactly what they are looking for, but you have NO WAY of proving that and it is impossible to determine someone’s intent. As a public employee, the professor is subject to a search for corruption and that should not be restricted.

          2. “you have NO WAY of proving that…”

            you’re quite right. but i wasn’t writing about intent, just the spirit of the law

            btw, neither do you have any way of proving the intent of Republican Party of Wisconsin

          3. The spirit of the law encompasses the idea that intent cannot be a part of the decision. The spirit of the law is that everyone has access to the information in order to protect themselves. That includes the GOP, or at least it’s individual members.

          4. So what do we think the Republican party is trying to protect itself against? If it’s the implication of being linked to ALEC, wouldn’t they do better by disclosing their own information?

        2. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the FOIA should be amended because the GOP is evil. If we altered everything the GOP soiled, we might as well shut down the entire government and all industry to boot.

          I just think when the GOP performs evil shit like this and abuses our American system (like terrorists do), we should call them out on it. And, in turn, we need to vote the corrupt idiots out of office and continue to put sunshine on their evil, pale, corrupt faces whether the slimy snakes try to squirm out of the light, use intimidation or otherwise.

  12. What is interesting/outrageous is that ALEC keeps its membership roster a secret. However, in the comments of one of the blog posts on Professor Cronin’s blog, one of the commenters described a simple way to find out if your favorite Republican is a member: go to the ‘forgot password’ section, and enter their email address, and voila!

    Of course, we may well hear on FOX about how poor ALEC has been ‘hacked,’ but hopefully they will have more pressing issues in trying to get back into their coffin as the sunlight pours in.

  13. He’s one of the rare academic superstars who’s any damn good in the classroom, I can tell you from personal experience. In fact, one of the best.

    But please–CronOn, not CronIn!

  14. Polama — FOIA is not the law in question here. FOIA is a federal law pertaining to federal records. Here the law in question is Wisconsin’s open records law (which, skimming the link to the annotated code provided in the linked article) does require release of some of what you lump under personal information.

  15. He just needs to use the “Dick Cheney Energy Taskforce” rationale that disclosure would harm candid discussions.

  16. Many of you are responding as if only our team should be allowed to use the power of sunshine laws, and I would like to call that out. Putting aside the professor “understandably”(?) feeling alarmed and intimidated, why shouldn’t the WI Republican Party exercise their FOI rights, or why should they have to consider this researcher’s feelings?

    The professor should (and probably will) redact the private information and reply. That’s what we (in public libraries) do when right wingers use FOIA to search for evidence of big gubbmint corruption, municipal waste, reverse discrimination, or whatever is their bugaboo du jour. Pain in the ass? Sure. It’s the price you pay for the freedom to do it yourself.

    If there is really a conflict here between the values of transparent government and academic freedom, I don’t quite see it. I’m actually quite glad that taxpayer-funded research is open to public scrutiny, and I can’t bring myself to call Foul on the other team for using tactics that my team uses all the time.

    1. i don’t feel this is so much about two “teams” arguing with each other.
      rather it’s the ‘governors’ trying to hold the ‘governed’ accountable which isn’t within the spirit of FOI laws.

    2. Many of you are responding as if only our team should be allowed to use the power of sunshine laws

      Of the 27 comments preceeding yours, and the post, I see no evidence of your assertion being true.

      I call Strawman! I also ignore the rest of your post as pretentious projection rather than earnest analysis, because when you lead with a fallacy, the stink takes at least a few minutes to clear.

  17. I work for a state college that has angered the GOP and several other right-wing organizations. A few years ago they discovered the power of public records requests, we have been flooded with them ever since. It’s hugely disruptive and has wasted thousands of hours of work, and it has spread fear and paranoia throughout campus. The college had to create a new full time position to deal with the requests about one year ago, and now there are so many of them now that they need to hire at least two more people. They can’t though because there is a hiring freeze and our budget is getting slashed.

    1. Uh, GTFOH, yeah?

      Libertarian notions of freedom ain’t actual freedom. Instead, they’re a lot like what Scott Walker meant when he told that faux-Koch that he’s fighting for freedom. He really meant freedom for the pigs on the animal farm, who certainly consider themselves “equal” and all to the other animals, but also deserving of MORE freedom.

      Who hired you, meatball?

  18. The other recent example was Virginia Attorney General Cuccinelli investigating scientist Michael Mann (currently at Penn State, formerly at U of V) with a spurious accusation of fraud. Mann is a climate change scientist, who was named in the recent smear job on global warming. Can someone find a useful example of a political group investigating an academic? Something where society benefited?

    I understand resisting the FOIA in the sense that it’s wrong to punish people just for asking questions. If the police wanted to search my apartment because they thought I had drugs or a bomb, great. If the police are doing it because I said the police chief was probably on the take, that’s really not OK.

  19. It has been known for centuries that the liberty of the commons depends upon their union; for the nobles have the wealth, and the arms that that commands.

    And the nobles have never been taxed.

  20. What’s good for the goose…

    … what will you say when you learn the same open records laws are being used by Democrats to harass the Democratic city council here in Austin!

    Open Records – it’s only a bad idea when people you like have to comply.

  21. Elected, appointed, and “academic”… lol. Why should an “academic” employed by the State have any special protection from open records laws?

    I’d have to say that the G&M post is pretty OT, mostly because a) it’s in Canada, and b) it was a criminal investigation, not an Open Records request. OR law already protects against exposing personal communications.

    1. It’s getting to be seriously worrying, though, how much that word sweeps away. It seems like these days you can’t call out any politician on anything without it getting dismissed as merely partisan accusations, no matter how wrong what they did may be.

  22. ALEC prides itself on getting government officials at all levels — mostly Republicans but a Democrat here and there too — to sign onto its “model legislation” which frequently involves deregulation, strait-jacket limitations on government functioning and other prescriptions championed by big business but a bitter pill for consumers of public and private sector services. One example of ALEC’s successes was the almost complete deregulation of cable television at the state and local levels in many states, a boon to AT&T. Less successful have been the strait-jacket initiatives to place tight limits on state and local spending. Pliable public officials are offered almost free admission to ALEC’s secret enclaves; business pays the freight.

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