In Wisconsin and Michigan, we are seeing what appears to be the latest right wing tool to intimidate and harass its critics: extensive – and baseless – public records requests against academics at public universities. The consequences for the free and open debate on which our democracy depends are serious indeed.
Last week, Wisconsin Republicans clamped down on criticisms of their party's efforts to undermine workers' rights by filing a broad demand for copies of all of the emails of University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Cronon that mention Governor Scott Walker, the eight Republican state senators who have been targeted for recall, or unions that represent government employees. Cronon had recently penned a blog post calling attention to the work of a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its apparently significant influence on Republican state lawmakers, including those in Wisconsin such as Governor Walker. The message was clear. Criticize what we do and we'll come after you to see what we can dig up to smear you with.
Any thought that this might be an isolated response was quickly shattered when similar requests were made for Wisconsin-related e-mails at three Michigan universities. Rather than being from the Wisconsin GOP, these were from a right-wing organization called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. They filed requests for e-mails of the faculty of the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center, the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, and the Labor Education Program of Michigan State University. The requests cover not only e-mails relating to the Wisconsin clash over the labor rights, but, according to press reports, also any e-mails mentioning Rachel Maddow.
Aside from their far right conservative ideologies, the Mackinac Center and ALEC have something else in common: Although not well known among the general public, they are part of a network of right wing ideological organizations that have been heavily funded over the years by many of the same small group of wealthy funders, including the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Coors family, the Scaife family, and corporate giant Exxon Mobil.
It is not likely a coincidence that these two right wing organizations employed the same unusual tactics in two different states just days apart. Who knows where they will go next. Clearly this is a pattern. And, unfortunately, it's a familiar one. Just as in the McCarthy era, academics face intimidation and harassment and possible threats to their reputations if they take public stands against the far right. The specific method of intimidation may be different (i.e., public records requests), but the goal is the same.
This intimidation is as insidious now as it was more than half a century ago, because it does not matter that the targets have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. As we have seen, all it took was one purloined e-mail, taken out of context and distorted beyond all recognition, to manufacture the phony "Climategate" scandal that threatened the reputation of climate scientists around the world and set back climate change regulations by years.
Anyone doubting that the far right is both willing and able to destroy their reputations with such distortions needs look no farther than the devastating video "exposés" of ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood. The ACORN video came first and essentially destroyed the organization. In the best traditions of McCarthyism, the right now uses any association with ACORN to discredit its opponents. They are hoping for equal success with NPR and Planned Parenthood.
People For the American Way strongly supports the Freedom of Information Act and its state and local equivalents. Opening government records to the public serves as an essential check on the abuse of government power. Indeed, the Bush Administration prepared for its long war against civil liberties in the administration's early days by essentially reversing the Clinton Administration's presumption that FOIA requests should generally be granted unless there is some reason to deny it.
Such laws exist to expand public dialogue and the dissemination of information affecting the public welfare. But the rights granted by FOIA laws, like so many others, have limitations and can be abused. A demand for information can be made not to hold government accountable and enhance public debate, but instead to harass, intimidate, suppress public debate, and keep information and opinions out of the public square. This is particularly true when it is aimed at individuals in state academic institutions.
That's what we see happening in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The public has a right to know about the activities of government entities working in its name. When a government entity has the authority to issue licenses, allocate funds, imprison people, conduct safety inspections, conduct elections – the core activities of government, all of which have substantial impacts on individuals, businesses, and groups – open records laws can help ensure that these tasks are done lawfully, without favoritism or waste. Reflecting how often members of the public request such information, many government organizations have entire offices dedicated to fulfilling these records requests.
So how often does a member of the public submit a record request for, say, the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan? I asked Roland Zullo, a research scientist there. He had to think about it because such requests are so rare, but he thinks the last one was about five years ago, a fishing expedition from a conservative organization essentially seeking all of their records going back to the 1950s. When the organization learned how much it would have to pay to cover the costs of its truly expansive request, it apparently backed off.
The Supreme Court has recognized the unique role that universities, including public universities, play in maintaining our liberties. As it stated in 1957, during the McCarthy era, "[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."
That is why the American Historical Society has strongly condemned the efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to intimidate Professor Cronon:
The purpose of the state's Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.
We should recognize that public universities are a unique hybrid. They are funded by the public, and we should be able to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and legally. But their work also contributes to the robust debate over public issues without which our freedom will die. And that debate requires that we protect academic freedom and ensure that faculty have no reason to feel intimidated for asking difficult questions, conducting their research and writings, and making statements that those in power do not wish to hear.
That is the American Way.