University of Wisconsin’s Response to FOIA Request Emphasizes Importance of Academic Freedom

The University of Wisconsin issued two documents in response to the request for Professor Bill Cronon’s emails: a message from the Chancellor, and a letter from the General Counsel to WI’s GOP. As the GC letter describes, UW has withheld the following documents, among others.

4.    Personal communications.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in Schill, et al. v. Wisconsin Rapids School District, et al., Case No. 2008AP967-AC (July 16, 2010), allows the university to withhold e-mails containing purely personal communications that do not relate to Professor Cronon’s employment as a faculty member or the official conduct of university business, even though they were sent or received on university e-mail and/or computer systems.

5.    Intellectual communications among scholars.  Faculty members like Professor Cronon often use e-mail to develop and share their thoughts with one another.  The confidentiality of such discussions is vital to scholarship and to the mission of this university. Faculty members must be afforded privacy in these exchanges in order to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.  The consequence for our state of making such communications public will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities that can guarantee them the privacy and confidentiality that is necessary in academia.  For these reasons, we have concluded that the public interest in intellectual communications among scholars as reflected in Professor Cronon’s e-mails is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications.

In her message, Chancellor Biddy Martin explained the importance of privacy to academic freedom.

We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.

As I have suggested, emails of Michigan professors FOIAed in similar fashion will almost certainly be exempted under personal exemptions under MI law (I’ve spoken to a bunch of people in MI since I wrote the post, and most people, particularly the lawyers, agree).

Of course, this won’t end it. It’s this concept of freedom that the Republicans are trying to assault, not to mention the autonomy of universities.

But I’m glad UW made such a statement in support of academic freedom.

  1. chetnolian says:

    Of course we can see where this leads.This is only an extension of the notorious University of East Anglia scam, where the deniers misused and lied about internal e-mails to distort the whole world progress of combating Climate Change. The great problem of all FoI legislation is it puts governmental and quasi governmental organisations at a disadvantage as compared with rich private lobbying organisation, whose internal emails would be a goldmine could we only get at them.

    • emptywheel says:

      Good point.

      I haven’t posted on it, but the MAckinac Center (who subpoenaed the profs here) have been subpoenaing K-12 teachers as well, and saying that the rejection of their FOIA (under a decision the Mackinac Center was involved in, and in spite of their inordinate influence in Lansing, have not tried to address legislatively) is proof of criminal wrong doing.

      • chetnolian says:

        I’d like to hear more on that. I have no experience of the US FOIA but some of its UK equivalent and am bound to say on balance I think it is turning out to do more to benefit the right than the left, for the reason I identified and because you can always tell a simple story about a public body and by the time the true meaning emerges it’s simply too late.The damage is done. The state is condemned and we all know who gains from that. Mr Cameron is very keen on transparency and I think that’s because he has worked that out.

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    I find this paragraph of the GC’s email quite interesting:

    At our request, Professor Cronon immediately undertook a search of all of his accumulated e-mails for the specific words, terms and names as you stated them in your request. The university’s legal staff then reviewed all of the identified e-mails to determine which ones must be made available to you pursuant to the Wisconsin Public records law. Those determinations have been reviewed and approved by the appropriate university officials. Copies of the records determined to be available to you under the law are enclosed.

    I wonder what they got?

    • protoslacker says:

      I wonder what they got?

      The blog and New York Times Oped received so much attention that I suspect that Dr. Cronon got quite a number of deranged emails. Those might be a good part of what they got.

  3. WilliamOckham says:

    Also, the very best result that could come from this is more attention to Prof. Cronon’s academic work. He is one of the best historians in the U.S. Long after this imbroglio is gone and forgotten, Cronon’s writings will be influencing a whole generation of historians.

    Highly recommended.

    • emptywheel says:

      It was pretty telling. Not only did Josh Marshal and Paul Krugman did public tributes to Cronin’s importance, but my bro (whose academic work is probably closer to Cronin’s than the other two) did too, to me.

  4. orionATL says:

    good for chancellor martin!

    i’d hazard a guess she might like to say a good deal more, a good deal stronger, but leaders in gov’t bureaucracies don’t have the luxury we have here at fdl of sounding off about anything, in any direction.

    i read esrlier today that in several of the “satellite” universities of the wisconsin system, e.g., stevens point,

    the faculty have voted to join a union. this is in political (but not legal) defiance of the govnr/legistr bill attacking public employee unions.

    di these actionsn have any bearing on the attack on prof cronon?

    ew and others close to the action will have a feel for what’s going on; i don’t.

    i will say that given wisconsin’s historical notoriety as the state that voted a drunken republican demagogue into a position of damaging power over american foreign policy and the american arts,

    i am astonished at the historical and political tone-deafness of today’s wisconsin republican party.

    again, political ads or youtube videos using historical footage and a good historical story forming a clear analogy could do enormous damage to th incipient wisconsin fascism. (n.b., i am using “fascism” as a descriptive term, not as a pejorative term.)

    the good news, though, is the extraordinary hubris.

    these are newt gingrich’s, tom delay’s, and dick cheney’s children.

  5. orionATL says:

    were i doing a youtube barrage

    (i have in my mind’s eye one of those military rocket launchers with a couple dozen rockets in neat array)

    i would not emphasize mccarthy too much.

    the real point would be not only the disregard for individuals he demonstrated,

    but also the consequences of mccarthy’s behavior for political society –

    for american foreign policy upto vietnam??


    for a distorted american domestic politics.

    showing pictures of a demogogue in action are important, but more important are the consequences of the demogogues’ actions.

    certainly some wisconsin voters of mccarthy’s time bear responsibility for putting him in office; just as do some wisconsin voters bear responsibility for putting the current melodramatic choir of republican politicians in positions of power.

    let them PRIVATELY come to comprehend their personal responsibility.

  6. RobinAkron says:

    I would read more on Ms Martin and her love-in with Walker and their desire to privatize the U with a majority Board controlled by Walker. It has been said that she does not have a good track record in past positions and may not be long for her job now, once Walker is gone from her support column. She is no source of support for any of the staff of the U and deserves absolutely no kudos what so ever. I lost the link I had but it came from TPM on the Muchraker side in comments. I would be in favor of a FOI for the emails from the right-wing asker, myself. Marcy: Thanks for what you do for US!

    • eCAHNomics says:

      Thanks. I was about to type that Chancellor Biddy Martin would be gone in 5, 4,…

      From your comment, what I was about to type for one reason, might be true for entirely diff reasons….

  7. szielinski says:

    It’s this concept of [academic] freedom that the Republicans are trying to assault, not to mention the autonomy of universities.

    The state GOPs also want to attack those local professionals for whom the Democratic Party is their most likely political home. It’s a partisan attack as well as an attack by the GOP on institutions they perceive to be their ideological opponents and places wherein reasonable instruction and free debate are common.

    The GOP is an amalgam of fundamentalisms, religious, economic and political, that a common intention for a political project is sometimes hard to identify.

  8. AitchD says:

    Ultimately (if history is a guide) it will come down to who has the better lawyers: the ACLU or the DOJ, when it becomes a federal case, after the federals via Congress defund federal funding to rogue Universities who won’t comply with federal requests. Or threaten to do so.

    • michaelfishman says:

      I think, in light of the record of the last few years, that it’s not a question of the quality of the lawyers trying the cases, but one of the judges’ fidelity to the expectations in the outcome of those who nominated and voted them into office.

  9. jo6pac says:

    No problem on Monday reugs will pass a law to defund UW and within a yr it will be a ghost town. They are insane you know.

  10. JohnLopresti says:

    There is a longtime gambit by Republicans to encourage the American Bar Association to isolate university faculty and render researchers subject to more arbitrary and politicized oversight, even when in tenured chairs. The controversy is continuing. I see that as a corollary of the FOIA incident which is the topic of the post.

  11. Shoto says:

    But I’m glad UW made such a statement in support of academic freedom.

    Copy that. Time for the academics to start pushing back, too. Welcome to the party.

    And Governor Wanker? Sit on it and spin…

  12. john2 says:

    This intimidation is about is trying to muzzle free speech, free channels of communication and academic freedom. This “request” by the conservatives says more about them than it does about their target. This is the kind of society they want — a society of frightened, cowed citizens. They want to use heavy-handed tactics to silence critics.

    • Knut says:

      The way to stop them is to stuff it back in their faces, the way Bill Cronon did. Force them to try to get a court order to get the information released, and see what happens.

  13. becomingjohngalt says:

    “When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy”

    Raises a few questions:

    Q. Who is to decide what does and does not violate state law if these emails are kept under cover?

    Q. Why is there such a sacrosanct treatment of emails between academics when the same type of exchanges between 2 bank execs would surely be thrown out in the open with not a second thought?

    • Knut says:

      I wouldn`t worry too much about profs at Wisconsin-Madison. They are good enough to go somewhere else if they get McCArthied. No black-listing for them. But the less prominent profs are vulnerable to Thug black-listing.

    • Knut says:

      Why don`t you go back to study for your driver`s license examination. We`ve got things to talk about here.

  14. TheScarletPimpernel says:

    It is really heart-warming to see a governmental agency with some backbone. This is bound to infuriate the governor and his cronies in the state legislature, but it does my heart good to see someone who is willing to stand up the Repugnantcans and say, “No!” The Repugnants are so used to steamrolling everyone into jellyfish obeisance that the U of W deserves a resounding hurrah for its “This far and no farther.” stance.