Home > Education, Right-Wing Extremism, Right-Wing Lies, Right-Wing Slime > Why the Academic FOIA Requests Should Be Denied

Why the Academic FOIA Requests Should Be Denied

March 30th, 2011

Not long ago, the Republican Party of Wisconsin demanded to see the emails of Professor William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin Madison, just a few days after Cronon wrote a blog post critical of the Republican governor of that state. Instead of being shamed by the blatant attempt to intimidate a scholar for exercising his freedom of speech, conservatives upped the ante and now a Michigan think tank is demanding email files on a number of other professors in that state.

They claim that the requests are legitimate because the professors, technically, are state workers and thus their files open to public review. They claim that it is not an act of intimidation because they are only looking for emails containing certain keywords. They even claim that it is the protests against their demands that are “chilling,” rather than the demands themselves.

Frankly, their claims are all self-serving and baseless. The requests should be denied out of hand for several reasons.

The first reason is academic freedom. Academics are often targeted by political figures and organizations, their jobs threatened for doing nothing more than speaking out. This is the key purpose of tenure, a hot-button issue in exactly this political debate–not as a cushy, union-based job security perk, but to protect academics from being punished for holding certain points of view that diverge from prevailing opinions, particularly those held in political circles. There is a long history of academics being punished, particularly in the form of career derailment, for the opinions they hold or the ideas they express, either publicly or in the classroom. The demands by political parties for private email records by educators regarding political matters is itself the best example why tenure should be protected and those making the demands should be censured.

The next reason is motives. Even if the request were made by a truly interested party for valid reasons, an open release of such academic records would still be questionable, with the matter instead best handled privately. For example, if an aggrieved parent of a student claimed that a professor was unjustly penalizing that student, that would at least qualify as a legitimate basis for a grievance which could, ultimately, lead to a limited private review of the email files of a professor. In the Wisconsin and Michigan cases, however, neither the parties asking for the information nor the purpose of their requests are legitimate to the context of the demand. The people demanding to see the professors’ emails are political entities, not parties with any legitimate interest in academic records, and the requests come immediately after the academics in question made public statements on issues that are politically sensitive–exactly the kind of situation where academic freedom is considered most relevant. The political entities’ claim that the keyword restrictions of the demands legitimize them instead prove the reverse; the keywords requested in the Michigan case, for example, are “Scott Walker,” “Wisconsin,” “Madison,” and “Maddow”–terms which reveal a blatantly political motive.

Furthermore, such records requests are supposedly intended to uncover malfeasance, but there is no–none, zero–indication that anything inappropriate was ever done by any of these professors, and the political nature of the keywords only serve to prove that the parties demanding the information are fishing for anything that could be used to discredit and otherwise harm the reputation of the professors regarding any political statements they made.

Finally, there is the issue of privacy. Not the privacy of academics making public statements, not even the privacy involved in the pursuit of academic freedom. But the privacy of students who expect full confidentiality regarding their academic work. The accounts in question are exactly those that would be used by the professors to communicate with students about the students’ work. The Michigan case, for example, involves all faculty members in the Labor Studies departments at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Wayne State University. Considering the keywords and the courses taught in the Labor Studies department, there is little doubt that the emails produced by such a search would include a great deal of correspondence with students over their essays, course work, grades, and even possibly could include material covering disciplinary actions (e.g., plagiarism claims) which are highly confidential and should, by no means whatsoever, be made public in any form.

In short, the demands made by these conservative groups are politically corrupt in their very nature, violate various ethical standards, and should not even be considered, much less granted.

The problem, of course, is that more and more, the conservatives talking points are being successfully sold as the New Truth. The very terms relevant to this issue have been twisted and turned to serve political ambitions and agendas. “Academic freedom,” in conservative circles, is nothing more than an end-run around constitutional prohibitions against teaching religious doctrine in the public classroom; they certainly will not respect the actual meaning or spirit of the term. Tenure, to them, is a cudgel that can be used to attack unions; it has already been at least partially redefined by the right wing to represent shiftless, incompetent, overpaid union-protected educators.

Worse, we now have a political climate in which conservatives feel comfortable doing pretty much whatever they feel like. Right-wingers are shamelessly and transparently lying about a variety of issues to make outright political attacks. Hidden-camera videos are heavily edited to mislead so as to take down organizations seen as liberal. False claims of voter fraud are fabricated so as to pass laws which would impede the ability of liberals to vote. Budget shortfalls are disingenuously said to be caused by overpaid teachers so that their unions, often supporters of Democratic causes, can be stripped of their power and influence. When a judge stops the law, Republicans simply ignore the judge–and the rule of law. Conservative officials advise “false flag operations” where faked assassination attempts can be blamed on political enemies. And college professors who dare speak their minds in public find themselves targets of political inquisitions.

We are not a fascist dictatorship. However, far too much of what goes on politically in our nation today bears far too great a resemblance to exactly that state. To which, the proper response would be shame; instead, conservatives simply blame those they seek to fraudulently vilify with the exact malfeasance they commit, with barely disguised smugness and contempt for propriety.

For them, fairness and honesty is for schmucks. They’re playing for keeps.

  1. Troy
    March 30th, 2011 at 13:42 | #1

    If I may Godwin . . .

    German Federal Election, July 1932:

    National Soçialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) 37.8%
    ^ Republicans

    Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) 21.9%
    ^ Democrats

    Communist Party of Germany (KPD) 14.6%
    ^ Progressives

    Centre Party (Z) 12.3%
    ^ Independents

    German National People’s Party (DNVP) 6.1%
    ^ Tea Party

    Together, the non-radical right could barely hold things together, with ~48% of the seats in the Reichstag.

    But the KPD was just as anti-republican as the Nazis, the communists wanted to destroy the Weimar Republic and replace it with a Worker’s Soviet or whatever.

    That’s where I kinda see things going now. Many lefties like me are unhappy with the Dems selling out the past century of Democrat advances and the general neo-liberal footings both the Clinton and Obama administrations have kept to.

    I for one can see the good cop-bad cop act here but I also understand that that’s the way the game has to be played — Obama’s got to go where the votes are.

    I don’t know where this is going, maybe Democrats will win the public debate here, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Big Money failed to win in 2008 but they certainly won in 2010 and are looking to seal the deal in 2012.

    The left’s public policy apparatus is in tatters compared to movement conservatism’s resources and message.

    If I could I’d move back to Tokyo tomorrow, though I do wonder if Japan’s situation is any better than the US’s.

  2. ken sensei
    March 31st, 2011 at 02:58 | #2

    I agree the Right Wing tactics are becoming more openly biased and fascist by the day. There is blatant abuse of power in Wisconsin and the opposition is being replaced by growing passivity and tacit support. I sincerely hope the proposed election recalls are successful, otherwise we could see things could get very ugly very quickly.

    This action by Walker’s administration is parallel to the McCarthy witch hunts and Chinese censorship of Google e-mail accounts in 2009. It has a feeling of political thuggery, dillusional paranoia and thought-policing, neither of which belong in an American political system–perhaps something you would find in North Korea, or Iran…

    I believe this “request” posed by Walker will be taken to and eventually blocked by a higher court because it is groundless and unconstitutional. The courts exist to uphold freedom of speech and I believe this will fall neatly into that category.

    In response to the idea that:
    technically, Cronon is a state worker and thus his files are open to public review,
    is rediculous since, technically, Walker works for the State of Wisconsin. Therefore, his private e-mails, likewise, should be open to public review.

    Somehow, however, I get the feeling that Walker would not be so enthusiastic about submitting his own e-mails to public scrutiny…

    Will the blatant Right Wing hypocrisy never end…

Comments are closed.