Conservative Class Warfare Against Free Speech

William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is unarguably a brilliant historian. His books on environmental history, including Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983) and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991), are recognized by his colleagues as state of the art. He’s president-elect of the American Historical Association and he’s got a MacArthur “genius grant.” But he can be a little naïve when it comes to contemporary American politics.

Last week, using the admirably sweeping Wisconsin Open Records Law, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed an open records request demanding access to any emails Cronon sent or received since January 1 containing the terms “Republican,” “collective bargaining,” “rally,” “union,” or the names of eight Wisconsin Republican legislators.

This fishing expedition—which is apparently wholly legal as the university receives about 20 percent of its funding from the legislature—was almost certainly inspired by the professor’s maiden blog post published at a new website called Scholar as Citizen. The post was titled “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?” Within two days it received half a million hits.

It focused on the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which drafts model laws that are then introduced by Republicans in state legislatures as apparently happened in Wisconsin with the new law that seeks to strip the collective bargaining rights of state employee unions. ALEC, which has been around for more than three decades now, proudly claims responsibility for more than 1,000 bills a year and in every state of the union.

Cronon held ALEC significantly responsible for what he termed “this explosion of radical conservative legislation”—an argument he made a few days later as well on the op-ed pages of The New York Times.

Cronon was right about ALEC. His naiveté arises in his argument that he never belonged to any political party and he thought letting people know of ALEC’s role in the drafting of the kinds of laws now sweeping conservative-dominated state legislatures across America was a purely educational endeavor that wouldn’t draw the ire of those seeking to dominate politics through this avenue.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin’s ostensible basis for demanding Cronon’s emails derives from the explicit prohibition against individuals using state email addresses for partisan political purposes, specifically: “University employees may not use these resources to support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum.”

Cronon says he would be “willing to bet quite a lot of money that Mr. [Stephan] Thompson [the deputy executive director of the Republican Party who submitted the open records request for Cronon’s emails] and the State Republican Party are hoping that I’ve been violating this policy so they can use my own emails to prove that I’m a liberal activist who is using my state email account to engage in illegal lobbying and efforts to influence elections. By releasing emails to demonstrate this, they’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic.”

After all, there is no evidence anywhere that any form of wrongdoing has occurred. Nor is there any implication of any misuse or even visible expenditure of public funds with regard to Cronon’s research. (Sending or receiving an email, after all, is free.)

What’s more, there are real dangers in revealing the emails. As Cronon notes, there are risks in giving Mr. Thompson what he wants, including violating the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act, or “Buckley Amendment,” that makes it illegal for colleges or universities to release student records without the permission of those students (see here and here).

Additionally, it would demand that Cronon reveal communications with his colleagues regarding academic work that was mutually understood to be conducted under conditions of privacy and confidentiality, including, “for instance, conversations with authors and editors about book manuscripts, and also the deliberations of two professional boards on which I sit, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and the American Historical Association (AHA), the latter of which I now serve as President-Elect.”

All of this is true, but what Cronon apparently fails to understand is that they are also irrelevant. Context, history, and open and free conversation about intellectual matters are themselves enemies of contemporary conservatism. And making these issues explicit in his blog post, politically intended or not, is a kind of mortal blow to the fiction these conservatives are so insistent upon presenting as exclusively driven by current events.

Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, refused to elucidate his motivation for requesting Cronon’s emails, but obviously, with nothing of a political nature likely to turn up in Cronon’s conversations, the request for these records is meant to intimidate.

The distinguished journalist James Fallows, writing from Beijing, notes that while he is “staying in a country where a lot of recent news concerns how far the government is going in electronic monitoring of email and other messages to prevent any group, notably including academics or students, from organizing in order to protest,” he sees the request for Cronon’s electronic communications to be a “flat-out effort at personal intimidation, in the tradition of Wisconsin’s own Sen. Joe McCarthy.” He likes it a lot less happening in Madison than in an openly communist, totalitarian country like China.

Meanwhile, the virus is spreading. Just this week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing research group in Michigan, has now made an even more widely drawn public records request to the labor studies departments at three public universities in the state asking labor studies faculty members for any emails mentioning “Scott Walker,” “Madison,” “Wisconsin,” or “Rachel Maddow.” The group is funded, according to Mother Jones, by “the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (the Wal-Mart Waltons), and foundations tied to two of Michigan’s best-known and wealthiest conservative political families: the DeVos family of Amway fame and the Prince family of Blackwater fame.”

One can hardly mistake the intent of this one. As Greg Scholtz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors, notes: “[A]ll this will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”

Dave Wiegel observes that such labor centers “have long been targets of the business community in Michigan, which sees them—as the state’s Chamber of Commerce president once said of the Wayne State center—as wholly owned subsidiaries of the UAW [United Auto Workers]." Last year, Wiegel adds, Mackinac published a litany of problems with the labor centers, arguing that they were, in Wiegel’s words, “basically taxpayer-funded organizing hubs for the Left.”

Clearly, the new front in the conservative class war is free speech.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.