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FRINFORMSUM: 3/29/2011

March 29, 2011

A fairly substantial controversy has arisen over the Wisconsin Republican Party’s efforts to obtain email correspondence written to and from University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon via FOIA.

The story began with a blog post written by Cronon on March 15.  Inaugurating his blog, which is entitled “Scholar as Citizen”, the history professor described in detail the efforts of a conservative group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to draft model legislative bills addressing conservative issues that can then be tailored by state legislators across the country to be passed in their own particular state.  Cronon alleges that ALEC is behind the recent flood of conservative legislative proposals in Wisconsin pertaining to state employees collective bargaining rights, property taxes, and a variety of other issues.  Cronon did not criticize the legality of ALEC’s actions, but claimed, “My concern is rather to promote open public discussion and the genuine clash of opinions among different parts of the political spectrum, which I believe is best served by full and open disclosure of the interests of those who advocate particular policies.”

After getting a half-million hits on his blog post, Cronon followed up with an op-ed piece in the New York Times on March 21, describing the rich civic heritage in Wisconsin, praising “[Wisconsin’s] open meetings law, open records law and public comment procedures” as “among the strongest in the nation” and claiming that, “the turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.”

Prior to the publication of the op-ed, the Wisconsin Republican Party had already responded by issuing a FOIA request under Wisconsin’s open records law for “all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which 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.”

Opinions regarding the GOP request have, not unsurprisingly, varied dramatically.  In subsequent blog posts, Cronon has made his personal position clear.  While regarding the importance of FOIA laws, Cronon claims that it is “simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state’s Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity.”  He suggests that FOIA should be applied more “cautiously” to universities when the requests seek to “harass individual faculty members for asking awkward questions, researching unpopular topics, making uncomfortable arguments, or pursuing lines of inquiry that powerful people would prefer to suppress.”  He claims that, while he has nothing to hide from disclosure, releasing the emails could have a  “severe chilling effect that could only undermine the university’s longstanding reputation for defending academic freedom.”

Various observers have come out on both sides of the dispute.  James Fallows, a correspondent for the Atlantic, has decried the GOP’s request as a “flat-out effort at personal intimidation, in the tradition of Wisconsin’s own Sen. Joe McCarthy.”  Comparing the efforts to government repression of dissent in China, Fallows claims “I am staying in a country where a lot of recent news concerns how far the government is going in electronic monitoring of email and other messages to prevent any group, notably including academics or students, from organizing in order to protest. I don’t like that any better in Madison than I do in Beijing.”

On the other side of the coin, Jack Shafer at Slate has criticized Fallow’s claims, suggesting “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.”  Shafer explains that the GOP has a rational concern that Cronon, a state employee, may have violated University email policy by sending politically motivated emails and suggests that “If [Cronon] 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.”  He further argues that FOIA, like it or not, is frequently and legitimately used as a partisan tool, and that this case is not somehow unique in that regard.

Others, such as Charles Davis, have taken somewhat of a middle ground, supporting the Wisconsin Republican’s right to issue the FOIA request while expressing broad concern about the 1st Amendment implications of partisan groups applying political pressure on academics.

In other partisan FOIA news, a Republican group called Crossroads GPS  has launched a new website called Wikicountability.org, which will serve as a public clearinghouse for records received from the Obama Administration via FOIA request by journalists, political organizations, or individual requesters.  The group also plans to use the site to monitor FOIA compliance by the administration by documenting delaying or ignored FOIA requests.

In anticipation of Thursday’s House Oversight Committee hearing on the DHS’s alleged politicized compliance with FOIA requests from conservative groups, the Associated Press has obtained emails from DHS employees that described DHS political appointees “meddling” and “constant stonewalling” with FOIA requests as “crazy” and “bananas.”  The evidence seems to give additional weight to Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa”s previous allegations regarding uneven treatment of FOIA requests by DHS political appointees.  DHS denies all allegations of misconduct regarding FOIA procedures.

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has a quick rundown of yesterday’s oval office meeting of various open government advocates, including our very own Executive Director Tom Blanton, with President Obama regarding freedom of information issues.  By all indications, the meeting was very constructive.

Last, but certainly not least, Stephen Weissman has a nice piece on the State Department’s reluctance to release and declassify its Foreign Relations of the U.S. (FRUS) volumes of documents pertaining to U.S. policy toward Congo (1960-68) and Iran (1952-54) due to the prevalence of information regarding CIA covert activity.  He argues that the release of both would be helpful in forming contemporary policy toward both countries by providing needed historical perspective.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Charles N. Davis permalink
    March 29, 2011 10:44 pm

    Nice post. I guess I am middle ground, but want to make clear I am in NO WAY insinuating whatsoever that any citizen in any state does not have every right under the law to make any FOIA request! I am afraid I did not make that as plain as I should have!

    What does keep me up and night is the unintended legislative blowback factor, which really can’t be controlled, nor do I think it should. If people are dissatisfied with how their FOI laws work, they should change them, working with elected officials to see better laws in place. See Utah at this very moment for a fine example.

    Charles N. Davis
    theartofaccess.com

  2. Emily Willard permalink
    March 31, 2011 1:24 pm

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

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