William Cronon emails: Wisconsin Republicans have every right to file a FOIA request.

William Cronon emails: Wisconsin Republicans have every right to file a FOIA request.

William Cronon emails: Wisconsin Republicans have every right to file a FOIA request.

Media criticism.
March 25 2011 7:01 PM

There's No Such Thing as a Bad FOIA Request

The Wisconsin GOP's quest to obtain a professor's emails isn't "McCarthyesque."

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In other words, Cronon's beef isn't with the Republican who filed for his emails but with the law. If he thinks that exposing university emails to the scrutiny of FOIA laws is an abomination, he should spend less time crying wolf about how the university's precious academic freedom is under assault and more time getting the law changed.

Professor Cronon also betrays a bit of naiveté in railing against "highly politicized" open records requests. Has he never inspected the FOIA docket? Many requesters have "highly politicized" motivations, and those motivations don't nullify their petition. Nor should they.

Take, for example, the lawsuit filed against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by the Associated Press and the Madison, Wis., Isthmus after his team ignored open records requests for emails he had received. The suit forced a settlement that released the materials. That Isthmus, a lefty alt-weekly, might hold a politicized view of the ongoing Wisconsin drama doesn't matter in the eyes of the law. FOIA laws exists for the benefit of independent seekers of truth, businesses looking for an edge over their competitors, news hounds seeking scoops, and even politicos seeking to stir the pot. If anything, these laws are underused. I side with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which holds, "The Open Records Law is like a muscle: The more it is used, the stronger it becomes. The law belongs to all of us, and it's our collective responsibility to make sure it stays strong."

I take Cronon at his word that his email correspondence did not violate the university's policies. I also accept his assertion that the release of his emails will cause him inconvenience, disruption, potential embarrassment, and worse, and that it will make the lives of professors at Wisconsin state schools miserable for all of the same reasons. I predict a long legal battle over the emails, as Ruthann Robson suggests here, but one that Cronon will lose because the open records law seems to side with the requesters of information. Its opening words unambiguously declare that "all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them."


I find nothing in that sentence that sounds remotely McCarthyesque. Do you?

Addendum, March 31, 2011: But wait, I have more to say on this subject. See this piece.


As anyone who has attended college knows, the classroom is not a politics-free environment, so let's not pretend that it is. In my experience—long ago at a land-grant diploma mill in the Midwest—professors tended to push their liberal political views but almost never punished students who resisted their orthodoxy. Your mileage may have varied. Send your college reminiscences to slate.pressbox@gmail.com—if you don't fear that a subpoena will rip them out of my hands and deposit them in a court filing. My Twitter feed is a completely open record. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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