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How Far Will Conservatives Go To Thwart Academic Freedom?

The attempt to intimidate University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon fits a larger pattern of conservative attacks on academics.

On April 1, the University of Wisconsin responded to a sweeping public records request by the state GOP by giving them no more than what the target of their investigation, historian William Cronon, thought proper: a carefully screened sub-set of the emails, excluding broad categories protected by academic freedom and student privacy.

There's a pattern of similar efforts in other states to use academics' emails against them that should prevent anyone from letting down their guard. In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is taking his witch-hunt against climate scientist Michael Mann to the state supreme court. In Michigan, a conservative think-tank is pursuing public records requests targeting labor studies departments at three public schools.

The Wisconsin chapter began when Cronon—the incoming chair of the American Historical Association—started his blog, Scholar as Citizen, with a March 15 post that cast a very sharp spotlight on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a little-noticed conservative organization founded in 1973, about which Cronon wrote:

Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft 'model bills' that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)

If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote.

Although Cronon wasn't the first to write about ALEC—he posted links to earlier work—he was a uniquely situated public intellectual in a state where ALEC's handiwork had just ignited an unprecedented storm of controversy, and he wrote in a careful, judicious tone that conveyed a seriousness of purpose. As Nation columnist and seventh-generation Wisconsin native John Nichols explained:

In the best "Wisconsin Idea" tradition, and the old progressive principle that said University of Wisconsin professors should share their knowledge with the people of the state, Cronon has been a public intellectual of the highest order.

Cronon was also well-known as a political independent, a centrist with good words to say about both major parties. The post proved wildly popular, gaining over half a million views—roughly matching the lower echelons of cable news programs. He was serious, restrained, and noticed.

The Wisconsin GOP decided to go after him, with a public records request seeking copies of his emails starting on January 1 referencing the terms “Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union” or the names of 10 GOP state lawmakers, including eight who are being targeted for recall, as well as the leaders of two public employee unions. Cronon—a staunch open government advocate—never disputed the GOP's legal right to make the request, but he did write a long, thoughtful, and sometimes passionate blog post on March 24 that profoundly questioned the wisdom—or even just plain common sense—of the request, hoping that it would move the Wisconsin GOP to reconsider. In particular, he cited student privacy concerns (protected in federal law by an piece of legislation authored by William F. Buckley's brother James) and impacts on professional communications, supporting the vitality of any academic discipline.

While Cronon focused on the potential institutional damage, historian Jon Wiener, who wrote about the controversy for the Nation, took a different approach. “Damage is not 'random' or 'collateral'” he said in an email interview. “The damage is intimidation of others on campus—not of their historical scholarship, but of their political activism.”

Cronon also wrote carefully about the whiff of McCarthyism:

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