The Mackinac Center’s Assault on Academic Freedom Is a Stunt

As TPM first reported, MI’s institution of wingnut stupid, the Mackinac* Center, has FOIAed the labor studies departments of three universities.

A free enterprise think tank in Michigan — backed by some of the biggest names in national conservative donor circles — has made a broad public records request to at least three in-state universities with departments that specialize in the study of labor relations, seeking all their emails regarding the union battle in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, TPM has learned.


The Mackinac Center For Public Policy, based in Midland, Mich., submitted the FOIA requests last Friday and Monday to the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan and the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University. A third FOIA was directed to Michigan State University, which has a School of Human Resources & Labor Relations.


The parameters for the request, from a version of the FOIA obtained by TPM and confirmed by Mackinac, cover emails that mention:

“Scott Walker”; “Wisconsin”; “Madison”; “Maddow”; Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.

The request covers all faculty emails from “January 1, 2011 to March 25, 2011.”

Read the entire FOIA sent to UM here.

Now, there are three odd things about this FOIA that suggest it is not a serious request, but instead a stunt designed to intimidate academic and political speech and probably sow conspiracy theories.

First, as TPM alluded to but didn’t fully consider, MI recently had a high profile email FOIA decision, Howell Education Association v. Howell Board of Education–in which the Mackinac Center was involved–that found emails to be exempt from FOIA.

This is a difficult question requiring that we apply a statute, whose purpose is to render government transparent, to a technology that did not exist in reality (or even in many people’s imaginations) at the time the statute was enacted and which has the capacity to make “transparent” far more than the drafters of the statute could have dreamed. When the statute was adopted, personal notes between employees were simply thrown away or taken home and only writings related to the entity’s public function were retained. Thus, we conclude that the statute was not intended to render all personal emails public records simply because they are captured by the computer system’s storage mechanism as a matter of technological convenience.

The decision also ruled that personal emails about union actions, while a misuse of the school district’s usage policy, still constituted private messages exempt from FOIA.

Now, the Appeals Court invited the legislature to clarify whether emails should be included in FOIA. Unless I missed it (it’s possible–Lansing has been generating a lot of under-discussed shit of late), the Republicans in Lansing haven’t yet done so (and couldn’t have by the January 1, 2011 start date of the FOIA request).

So unless I’m mistaken about there being a new law on FOIA in this state, the Mackinac Center knows this FOIA is junk.

In addition, while it may or may not affect this case, MI’s universities have some of the strongest autonomy among public schools nationally. While there have mixed decisions about what this means in recent decades (usually litigated on whether MI can offer abortion coverage or same sex partner coverage to its employees), I suspect university autonomy would make this FOIA claim an even weaker case than it was in a K-12 school district.

Next, look at the terms of the FOIA:

It asked for all emails discussing:

“Scott Walker”




Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin

And the request start date is January 1, before Scott Walker was even inaugurated as Governor, and well before Scott Walker formally introduced his assault on collective bargaining on February 11.

Is the Mackinac Center trying to suggest–with a FOIA request that will go nowhere–that MI’s labor professors dreamt up the response to Walker? And dreamt up Rachel Maddow in the bargain?

Note what else doesn’t appear in the FOIA: “Snyder,” “EFM,” or “Emergency Financial Manager”–terms as least as likely to have been discussed in this state, but also terms that would clearly have even greater protection as personal emails (since the professors speaking about such topics–particularly in Wayne County, one of the targets for such legislation–would presumably have a personal, as well as a professional interest in what happens in their own state).

I don’t know what to make of this–maybe in his effort to pretend he’s not as conservative as the rest of the Republican governors ruining the Midwest, Snyder asked the Mackinac Center to exclude him–but I find it curious that a Michigan-based “think tank” isn’t asking for emails that would be more likely to appear and more relevant to the public interest of the state.

The likelihood that this is some kind of stunt seems all the more likely given the squirminess from the Center as to their purpose.

Jarrett Skorup, the Mackinac Center research associate whose name is on the FOIA, told TPM he helped write and then filed the FOIAs at the request of his bosses, but he wasn’t sure what they’d be used for in the end. He suggested the Mackinac Center was looking for chatter about the Wisconsin labor situation from state professors paid to study labor relations.

“I would imagine just to see what the people in the labor studies dept are thinking about stuff in Wisconsin,” Skorup said when asked the purpose of the FOIAs.

His boss, Mackinac Center newsletter managing editor Ken Braun, refused to comment on the FOIAs.

“I’m not going to release what we’re writing about,” he said.

I’m not trying to say this isn’t dangerous or a troubling assault on academic freedom.

But there’s something that stinks even beyond the request on its face.

*Odd as it may seem, “Mackinac” is pronounced “Mackinaw” in these parts. Since we’ll be hearing a lot more about the Mackinac Center in upcoming days, please try to get that right, because otherwise we here in MI will be screaming and holding our ears and so won’t hear what you say.

  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice hotel on mackinack island. Then there’s that little bridge nearby that gives you vertigo when you pass under or on it. No worries. It’s like a Yank saying Saint John instead of sinjun, or Mackenzie instead of minnies. Then of course there’s the whole Australian language.

    Doesn’t it seem strange that so many Republican governors and their state-based “think” tanks are running identical plays at the same time on so many different playing fields, against so many different opposing teams and in view of spectators with such varying needs? It’s almost as if they hire the same consultants and go to the same retreats funded by the same billionaires.

    • emptywheel says:

      Actually, that hotel on Mack I Nack Island is probably among the top 10 places where I’ve felt physically uncomfortable with the segregation.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        The ante-bellum look and feel, the regimentation about eating times, the Luddite lack of mod cons, does make it seem as if it were lost somewhere in time, doesn’t it? The views, though, are glorious.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It does make one wonder how many Democrats go to the same retreats, or whose chiefs of staff want the same billionaires’ cash and are willing sub rosa to follow the same playbook to get it.

      • AppleCanyon2 says:

        I am way late to this discussion and it may have moved on but I want to ask an important question. (or in my mind anyway)

        I read somewhere and I think it was the U. of Michigan that was going to use a mechanism that schools and universities use to track plagiarism.

        Supposedly, because of the similarities of all this legislation coming at once and in various states, this technology could be used to track ALEC legislation and now Mackinac ideas that enter the various state bills.

        Am I right, or am I smoking dope?

    • orionATL says:


      re: my comment @28,

      my sincere apologies for failing to read and note your prior comment.

      (or might i provide myself with a socially “legitimate” excuse by claiming i read it and the forgot it, due to a well-known memory-robbing disease.)

    • Disgusteddan says:

      Not just the same MO. It looks like the Mackinac Center got a copy of the ALEC generic version for the Wisconsin FOIA request and forgot to modify the search terms for their Michigan version.

  2. orionATL says:

    you tellin’ me that way up yonder in michigan


    is pronounced like

    S-A-G-I-N-A-W ?

    no wonder y’all got problems.

  3. orionATL says:

    i suspected it was somebody like the french that didn’t know english.

    waddn’it them that pushed “salt saint marie” over on us?

  4. tejanarusa says:

    EW – skipped to the asterisk – thanks for the link, which I’ve added to my language bookmarks!

    Betcha Rachel Maddow has an apology/correction tonight.

    Oddly enough, I remember learning in grade school (maybe bc I was only one state south of Michigan?) the proper pronunciation of Mackinac Island, in social studies class. Back in the dark ages when we did study geography (as part of social studies), including each other state individually.

    Now to read the substance…

  5. orionATL says:

    intimidating college professors with law suits is probably as old as universities (“univ of paduah prof sued by plagiarizing painter”).

    but it first came to my attention with the tobacco industry’s attack on public health professor stanton glantz of the school of medicine of the univ of calif san francisco some years ago.

    since the tobacco industry and the republican party are indistinguishable down to the level of their dna,

    it is no surprise that the michigan republican party would attack university profs of labor relations.

    for a recent history of the attack on history profs (the tobacco companies operates like the fake religion, scientology, operates – criticize them and they’ll abuse the law to harass the hell out of you)

    see this article in the nation:

    the obvious answer to this form of harassment is legal action against not only the republican party or the tobacco industry but against law firms who engage in this sort of misuse/abuse of the legal system.

    but that approach takes money which univ profs typically don’t have much of – nor their universities, either.

    at least a reciprocal foia against the gov and republican legislators would be in order.

    rest assured, too, that all this is being co-ordinated from republican national headquarters.

  6. orionATL says:

    emptywheel @15

    that’s him.

    if you know him, you know his life has been hell since the day his mom stuck him with that moniker(come to think of it, that was his first day).

  7. harpie says:

    Mackinac Center and Michigan Press Association to File Documents With Michigan Supreme Court in Key FOIA Case; The Mackinac Center; 3/24/11

    […] The Center and the Michigan Press Association believe Wednesday’s FOIA denial, sent by Marquette Area Public Schools, provides grounds for the Michigan Supreme Court to reconsider and overturn last year’s Court of Appeals decision. Although the state Supreme Court denied leave to appeal in December 2010, a motion for reconsideration was filed in January 2011. […]

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The headline claim in that Mackinac Center press release is what this brouhaha is all about. It wants to defame its opponents by suggesting wrongful conduct. Since its FOIA request seems to have no merit, its defamation remains outstanding and unresolved, as Cokie’s law has it, it’s out there. Who says Karl Rove and his brethren retired from politics?

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The motivations for this FOIA are unclear. It may be about teachers’ strikes, about support for teachers’ unions – still legal in MI, I understand – or much else. It is certainly about exposing opponents’ personal networks and lives, which is usually used by the powerful to intimidate those who must act in concert with others in order to protect themselves and advance their group interests.

    If it were possible for minority investors in Koch brothers companies to ask for the brothers’ personal e-mails – on the basis that they were using corporate resources to advance personal agendas – we would suddenly hear them roar about intimidation, chilling effects and the First Amendment. Abuse of government e-mails, by the way, was a Karl Rove specialty.

    Except in those example, it would be improper to use corporate resources in that way or to abuse government resources and public records laws. It is not improper for any public employee to use their own time and resources to advance unions or anything else that advances their interests. These GOP and billionaire think [sic] tank fishing expeditions into the lives and political connections of their opponents should be strenuously resisted.

    • emptywheel says:

      Here’s my operative theory, given the other FOIAs the Mackinac Center is doing as per the links harpie pointed to above.

      Mackinac is FOIAing a bunch of people about organizing–something they know is considered private under binding legal precedent. Given something one of the profs in the TPM piece said and some conversations I’ve had here, I think the Labor Studies depts have strict guidelines to separate content from action. So I expect these FOIAs to be declined as well, and the MC to say that means they must be engaged in illegal organizing too. (Of course it doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence of the kind).

      The right here–particularly the MC–has been chipping away at MI’s U autonomy. I suspect they’d also like to chip away at the effiacacy of these depts.

      More importantly, I expect them to be rolling out their “proof” of illgal activity on this in an effort to discredit the teachers as they put in their EFMs and so forth.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        That holds together. And since The Big Chill, everyone’s known that Ann Arbor is home to a bunch of pot smokin’, amoral, sexual partner swapping DFH’s.

        I especially like the MC’s McCarthyite/Rovian touch of claiming that legitimately private e-mails, that can’t be legally disclosed under a FOIA, contain the smoking gun proving nefarious pro-labor, anti-corporate abuses.

        The twisted logic ensures that their claims can’t be proven or disproven, and so hang in the air like a pinata. If sued for defamation, the MC would cry foul and First Amendment and demand to see all the e-mails, which would solve nothing for their targets. An elegant, nefarious use of Cokie’s Law.

  9. tejanarusa says:

    Finally got back to read the rest of the post.

    Very interesting about the Howell decision. Of course, knowing that your request would violate clear legal rulings never does hamper modern right wingers from going ahead. The “stunt”, the publicity allowing them to spin and defame, etc., etc., is much more important than mere law.

    See, for example, Scott Walker and the WI AG (forget his name) stating after the second injunction from the judge that “of course, the law is in effect and we’re going to implement it forthwith” (paraphrasing)

  10. orionATL says:

    no doubt noted here before, but i can’t find it.


    the republicans are engaged in radical political warfare; they will not let any individual or organization stand in their way, viz, the courts.

    if you’ve been wondering when the revolution would happen, you can stop now.

    this war will go at least from now until nov,2012.

    standard dem tactics – playing politics ass to the basket – will guarantee radical political and economic change happening very rapidly.

  11. klynn says:

    A good read from the past…

    It illuminates the present. Naomi Wolf did a good job on this piece. She missed “eliminating unions” as a step. But this quote would be worth adding to your piece:

    “Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile’s Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.

    Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish academics and students with professional loss if they do not “coordinate”, in Goebbels’ term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also a group that fascists typically “coordinate” early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.”

    • orionATL says:

      thanks, klynn.

      the older i get, the more it seems that the past informs us of the present in insight-producing ways. i sure didn’t
      feel that was the case when i was slogging thru history textbooks.

      imagine a dem party youtube with some history of the sort you highlight interwoven with the current republican blitzkreig against academics.

      there has to be some way of by-passing the corporate media.

  12. rjrnab says:

    They made up a bunch of shit and put it on plaques around the ‘Gilded Hotel’ to try and outdo Breton Woods happy horseshit in Cow Hampshire. They call in on Grand Rapids talk radio once in awhile to let us know what’s going on up on high. WW II didn’t bring anyone out of depression. Truman had to make a law so people could pay the man on-time. You’re right about the segregation, it may be the best job those Jamaicans can get, but it just perpetuates the gilded era it seems we’re heading back into. Those Grand Hotel jobs are like the new Cushman Coach jobs of the past. They run those people around like robotons at supper, slopping us white folk down:)