Univ. of Wisconsin Responds To GOP’s Open-Records Request Against Professor

April 1, 2011 9:57 a.m.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has announced that it is legally complying with the state Republican Party’s open-records request, which sought the e-mails of Professor William Cronon after he had written a blog post critical of Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-public employee union bill. But there’s a big catch.

Chancellor Biddy Martin announced in a statement posted online that the university will release some of Cronon’s e-mails later on Friday. But first, they applied a “balancing test” to the e-mails, excluding those protected by various privacy laws and other key rules, and that they believe they are in compliance with the law:

We are excluding records involving students because they are protected under FERPA. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member’s job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.

Reading through that list, one gets the feeling that there would not be very much left. Martin also says that the university examined Cronon’s university e-mails for any violations of the law, such as engaging in partisan political activity — and there are none. And Martin also adds a vigorous defense of the principle of academic freedom.Key quote:

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.

This does not mean that scholars can be irresponsible in the use of state and university resources or the exercise of academic freedom. We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon’s records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.

To our faculty, I say: Continue to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view. As always, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque on the walls of Bascom Hall. It calls for the “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing” of ideas. It is our tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.

Late Update: When asked for comment, Cronon told TPM: “I could not be more grateful for the thought and care that Biddy Martin and UW-Madison attorneys have put into crafting these responses — and I am very proud of this university for continuing to defend the great traditions of the Wisconsin Idea and of the ‘sifting and winnowing’ plaque that I discussed in my earlier blog.”

This refers to a plaque at the main entrance to Bascom Hall, a major campus building, which has inscribed upon it a quote from the 1894 report of the UW Board of Regents:

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

Late Late Update: The state Republican Party released this statement, from executive director Mark Jefferson:

“We thank the University for complying with the open records request relating to the email correspondence of Professor William Cronon, and we thank Chancellor Martin for her statement. We share her belief that University faculty are not above the rules prohibiting the use of state resources for political purposes. Like other organizations from across the political spectrum, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has a longstanding history of making open records requests, and we will continue to exercise our right to do so in the future.”

Previously, when Cronon had publicly denounced the records request, Jefferson said that such criticism would deter open-government efforts. “I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government,” Jefferson wrote last week. “Further, it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request.”

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