Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bill Cronon, Academic Freedom and Freedom of Information Act

William Cronon is one of the premier academic American historians. He helped to usher in the study of American environmental history with his Bancroft-winning Changes in the Land, a book he wrote before he finished his dissertation. His second book, Nature's Metropolis, traced the development of Chicago, and it has become a classic work of urban, economic and environmental history. Just last October, he was elected to be the new President of the American Historical Association.

After he wrote an op-ed piece, that condemned the attempts of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to strip unions of collective-bargaining rights. As retaliation for this piece, two well-funded conservative think tanks have pressed the University of Wisconsin to make public all the emails Cronon has written and received on his university e-mail address under a state freedom of information act.

The rationale behind this goes as follows: Cronon is a public employee who should submit to transparency on his publicly-funded email, allowing everyone to see what else he has said. But does this logic hold water? The answer is a resounding no.

For conservatives, who have continually celebrated "limited government," this act is far more reminiscent of the authoritarian regimes of East Germany, Stalinist Russia or Mussolini's Italy. How do these conservatives who want taxes for America's largest corporations lowered to nothing and the government's (federal, state and municipal) ability to pay for social services rendered null and void justify an act that takes away the very individual freedoms they extol at all times.

Freedom of Information Acts are wonderful things. They make records public to historians and journalists, hopefully avoiding major redactions and highly classified documents from being hidden from the public. Academics have been some of the most vocal supporters of these acts; however, this act is now being twisted to intimidate historians from using their cultural capital to discuss and sometimes even condemn policies. How is it not a violation of free speech?

The state freedom of information act also stresses that the people subject to the law are "elected officials." Dr. Cronon was not elected to any public office in the state. This is quite an overreach to search his email because he teaches at a public institution.

The other issue that will come into play is that the vast majority of Cronon's emails involve his students. Emails involving student grades, health issues, familial problems, etc must remain confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Cronon's emails will probably find little of incendiary value. There may be some snide remarks about colleagues, some patronizing emails sent to graduate students or angry letters to the chair of the department or to the dean about the budget, but most likely nothing that will result in any headlines. The act of going through emails, which he believed were private, when written is such a gross violation of privacy and even the artificial expansion of a law meant to do good work.

The final thought emerges from this: why are the conservatives so afraid of one lonely historian. Although he is well known within the academy, he is by no means a bestselling author or pundit. Are Scott Walker's policies in such dire straits that one historian can make them topple? If so, we historians are greater than we believe ourselves to be.

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