Creeping FOIAzation in Michigan, and Defunding the Left

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 29 2011 1:03 PM

Creeping FOIAzation in Michigan, and Defunding the Left

Last Thursday and Friday, University of Wisconsin Prof. William Cronon asked why state Republicans were filing public records requests for his e-mails, speculating that they were trying to catch him in an ethics flap. The story went national, and quickly; Paul Krugman made it the subject of his last column.

The story also may have inspired Michigan's Mackinac Center to file requests for similar information from the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan, the Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, and Michigan State University. According to Evan McMorris-Santoro, the information requests were filed on Friday and Monday, asking for ""all electronic correspondence (i.e., e-mails) carried out on computers to or from employees, contractors, etc."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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"Scott Walker"
"Wisconsin"
"Madison"
"Maddow"
Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation inWisconsin.

Go read McMorris-Santoro's piece; I've got calls out to find out a bit more. But here's some background. These labor centers at the universities have long been targets of the business community in Michigan, which sees them -- as the state's Chamber of Commerce president once said of the Wayne State center -- as "wholly owned subsidiaries of the UAW." In 2006, the Chamber filed a legal complaint against the center because it hosted a site promoting a minimum wage ballot initiative. In 2010, the Mackanic Center published a litany of problems with the labor centers, arguing that they were basically taxpayer-funded organizing hubs for the Left.

In addition to publishing studies extolling the virtues ofimplementing living wage laws, the LSC Web site also provides a "free" 225-pagedownloadable " activist'shandbook ," which is advertised as providing a "nuts and bolts guide" forcreating a living wage campaign.

To obtain a print version, readers are encouraged to send$15 to the Washington, D.C., offices of ACORN, the highly controversial community organizinggroup. The LSC handbook's co-authors are David Reynolds, an instructor at theLSC, and Jen Kern, a longtime ACORN employee.

In addition to these research areas, there is also a pagededicated to passingthe Employee Free Choice Act (aka " card check "), an LSC-producedmanual for public employee unions trying to defeatprivatization , and an offer to help assist local unions in " politicaleducation ." (Perhaps concerned about appearances on this last item, the LSCadvises, "Political action does not have to be a "dirty word" forunion members or local officers.")

When you hear Newt Gingrich talk about "defunding the left," this is one of the things he's talking about. This is the next stage, really, in the evolution of the conservative and libertarian think tanks that were created to combat the influence of state-funded public universities -- making it tougher for the public universities to host political operations. Ban taxpayer funding for ACORN and you kill that organization. Raise concerns about labor centers at universities, when the state is run by a new Republican governor and legislature, and you crack open the door to defunding those centers, too.

UPDATE: I talked to Merrick Masters, a professor at Wayne State and director of Labor @ Wayne, and confirmed the details of the request, though Masters said he had been advised by counsel not to say much more.

"The FOIA came earlier this week," he said, "and asked for us to provide emails from January 1 to March 25 2011, dealing with the terms: Scott Walker, Madison, Maddow, Wisconsin, and collective bargaining in Wisconsin. The counsel's office now is investigating how best we can retrieve the information, and how best to respond to it."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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