My Worlds Collide

March 24, 2011 7:58 p.m.

This is a bizarre, ugly turn of events. And for me it’s a little weird because of the people involved. I just found out about it from TPM Reader AS.

Bill Cronon — or William Cronon, as I think of him — is a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin. A few days ago he wrote an oped in the Times critical of Gov. Walker and his push to abolish collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin. About a week before that, he wrote a blog post — the first in a new blog called Scholar as Citizen — examining just who’s behind this big anti-union push. He focused on a group called ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council).

Now, so far, nothing particularly controversial about any of this. But then it took a dark turn. Or perhaps better to say, then the story got into gear with everything else we’ve seen out of the Walker administration over the last three months.

Less than two days after Cronon published the blog post, the Wisconsin Republican Party filed a state open records request to gain access to Cronon’s personal emails to get a look at what communications or discussions or sources or anything else went into writing it.

Now, ‘personal’ is up for some reasonable debate here. This is his university email. And he’s a Professor at the University of Wisconsin, the state university. So he’s a state employee. Still, he’s not an elected official or someone doing public business in the sense you’d ordinarily understand the term. Nor are they looking at anything tied to the administration of the University, which is legitimately a public matter. In the ordinary sense we tend to understand the word it’s his personal email. And the range of requested documents leave no doubt about what they’re after.

Here’s the request (reprinted from Cronon’s blog)…

From: Stephan Thompson []
Sent: Thursday, March 17, 2011 2:37 PM
To: Dowling, John
Subject: Open Records Request

Dear Mr. Dowling,

Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:

Copies of 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.

We are making this request under Chapter 19.32 of the Wisconsin state statutes, through the Open Records law. Specifically, we would like to cite the following section of Wis. Stat. 19.32 (2) that defines a public record as “anything recorded or preserved that has been created or is being kept by the agency. This includes tapes, films, charts, photographs, computer printouts, etc.”

Thank you for your prompt attention, and please make us aware of any costs in advance of preparation of this request.


Stephan Thompson

Republican Party of Wisconsin

Here’s Cronon’s response to the request and his argument that this is a perversion of what a FOIA request is intended for as well as a pretty transparent attack on academic freedom. More than that, it’s just another example of the kind of thuggish behavior that has become the trademark of Walker’s rule. If you read the response Cronon posted tonight he’s pretty candid about the importance of the FOIA system — which exists at the federal level and in most states. And how calling this an abuse puts him in at least some tension with those beliefs.

Now, one other point that is neither here nor there in terms of public or political relevance. But it means something to me.

Cronon has written a number of highly respected books. But the first was a book called Changes in the Land, a paradigm changing study of early New England. I hesitate to call it environmental history even though that’s probably the best description of it. Because I think for those not familiar with the book or the field that may make it sound faddish or narrow in its outlook when it’s anything but.

I mention it because it’s probably the book that affected my thinking about history more than any other in the time I was getting my own history Phd back in the 1990s, even though I never met Cronon. Other books had more weighty interpretative apparatus or more theory with bigger and bigger capital Ts. But this one was the one I kept coming back to. And my own dissertation was in many ways an effort to pursue a series of questions that Changes raised in my mind about the early history of New England.

As I said, that’s really here nor there as far as this new controversy. But I couldn’t tell the story in any complete way without including that part of it.

The facts of the present case really speak for themselves. For more details, I encourage you to read the ‘offending’ blog post, the Times oped and Cronon’s response published this evening. I hope this gets a lot of attention.

Latest Edblog
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: