When James Fallows—the most reasonable man on the planet—compares someone's behavior to that of Sen. Joe McCarthy, which he did today on the Atlantic's website, it is incumbent upon all of us to investigate!
What's got Fallows so upset is an open records law request—roughly equivalent to a state FOIA request—filed in Wisconsin on March 17 by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party for the emails of University of Wisconsin professor of history William Cronon.
Is the Wisconsin Republican Party using the freedom of information process to label Cronon a communist? Is it trying to paint the University of Wisconsin as a safe harbor for communist spies and communist sympathizers?
Well, no. The Republican Party is requesting all emails from Cronon's state email account that "reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell."
Most of these people, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelpoints out, are Republican legislators. The exceptions are Beil, who heads the Wisconsin State Employees Union, and Bell, who leads the Wisconsin Education Association Council. The smoking gun that the requester seems to seek is evidence of a violation of the university's email policy, which reads, "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."
Fallows calls the Republicans' action an "attempt to intimidate" Cronon, who filed a spirited blog item about Wisconsin's Republican legislature on his own site a day-and-a-half before the open records law request was made.
In a post filed yesterday, Cronon calls the open records law request an attack on academic freedom, an abuse of the open records law, and an attempt to "prove that Bill Cronon has been engaging in illegal use of state emails to lobby for recall elections designed to defeat Republicans who voted for the Governor's Budget Repair Bill." The request was made "for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor," Cronon writes.
Cronon insists that he has committed "no politically inappropriate activities" on his state email account. (He also corresponds on a private email account.) He contends that if his emails are released, the free flow of ideas that powers the university will be throttled by the prospect that the politically motivated will be given "carte blanche to rummage through our online communications."
"[I]n the academic world this raises special concerns because such inquiries have often in the past been used to suppress unpopular ideas," Cronon continues.
I have no dog in the fight between Cronon and the Republican who filed the records request, other than my long-term support of strong local, state, and federal FOIA laws and rigorous application of them. Yeah, I know, there's a huge element of the political stunt to the filing. But calling it McCarthyesque, as Fallows does, is a complete overreach. Joe would have never done anything so flatfootedly procedural! Likewise, denouncing the request as an assault on academic freedom, as Cronon does, is also a stretch. If university emails are under the purview of records requests, every citizen—even self-identified Republican Party apparatchiks—has every right to file a request.