Attack on Academic Freedom

Once upon a time, there was a country called the United States of America where academic freedom was something one could take foregranted. In fact, the United States was very proud of the fact that it had the most liberal interpretation of freedom of thought in the entire world.

Well, now it is 2011 and times are not good if you are an academic, particularly if you are an academic who is employed by a state university and just happen to be critical of a government’s policies. This is especially true if  you have done your homework on the subject at hand.

Just ask William Cronon who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin. To be honest, until this past week, I didn’t know who William Cronon was.  But after reading Paul Krugman’s Column, American Thought Police, I wanted to learn more about Professor Cronon.


In short, he is a renowned professor history and is also the President elect of the American Historical Association.

Recently, Professor Cronon started a blog called Scholar as Citizen .  This story began with his first post called: Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here).  Cronon had the audacity to criticize the Walker regime, I mean government, and its abuse of the State’s Open Meetings law to push through it’s anti-union legislation.  Criticism itself may have been easily dismissed as the typical propaganda of an ignorant leftist (more on this later in the post.)  The problem is Professor Cronon drew his conclusions based on his research of the American Legislative Exchange Council. (ALEC)

Here is what the professor posts about ALEC

The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. 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.
You can start by studying ALEC’s own website. Begin with its home page at
First visit the “About” menu to get a sense of the organization’s history and its current members and funders. But the meat of the site is the “model legislation” page, which is the gateway to the hundreds of bills that ALEC has drafted for the benefit of its conservative members.

You’ll of course be eager to look these over…but you won’t be able to, because you’re not a member.

(My Bold)

Well, lots of Websites have restricted sections that are only available to its members.  So anyone who wants to see all this legislation can just become a member right?  As the professor points out, becoming a member of ALEC is easier said than done, at least for most of us.

How do you become a member?  Simple. Two ways.  You can be an elected Republican legislator who, after being individually vetted, pays a token fee of roughly $100 per biennium to join.  Here’s the membership brochure to use if you meet this criterion:
What if you’re not a Republican elected official?  Not to worry. You can apply to join ALEC as a “private sector” member by paying at least a few thousand dollars depending on which legislative domains most interest you. Here’s the membership brochure if you meet this criterion:
Then again, even if most of us had this kind of money to contribute to ALEC, I have a feeling that membership might not necessarily be open to just anyone who is willing to pay the fee. But maybe I’m being cynical here.

Professor Cronon’s post can be read in it’s entirety here as can his other posts.  It’s seldom that I recommend a website within a post, but I highly recommend reading Professor’s Cronon’s “controversial” post along with his other writings.
The Walker Republicans’ response was to make an open records request of Cronon’s U of Wisconsin e/mail account via e/mail from Stephan Thompson of the Wisconsin Republican Party.  This e/mail is posted on Professor Cronon’s website here:

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



I’ll be the first to agree, that,in isolation, the timing of the Professor’s post on the open meetings law (March15) and the fact that two days later a Republican party operative is making this request, may just be a coincidence. In fact, if previous requests of this nature were made of the professor’s e/mail records, there might be room to conclude that while this is highly coincidental, it isn’t really a smoking gun.

Except there are a few more facts worth noting. We already know that the Scott Walker’s Republican friends have a record of resorting to dirty tricks. There was Walker’s claim that he received alot of e/mails supporting  his tactics and the anti-union bill. The Huffington Post reports a different story.

But an Associated Press analysis of the emails shows that, for close to a week, messages in Walker’s inbox were running roughly 2-to-1 against his plans. The tide did not turn in his favor until shortly after desperate Democrats fled the state to stop a vote they knew they would lose.

And we know that e/mail was used to propose some dirty tricks, including a plan to blame unions for a fake attack on the governor.  Even without evidence to suggest that the Republicans can never stoop too low to shove their agenda through the political process, there are other facts worth considering.

This is the first time the professor has been the subject of this sort of request and it’s the first time that he has the Republican Party’s attention. When these facts are taken together, I find myself agreeing with the professor’s conclusions as stated, in a post called: Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom.

It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to infer that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues aren’t particularly eager to have a state university professor asking awkward questions about the dealings of state Republicans with the American Legislative Exchange Council. This open records request apparently seemed to Mr. Thompson to be a good way to discourage me from sticking my nose in places he doesn’t think it belongs.

By going after Professor Cronon, the Republican Party of Wisconsin is sending a message to other academics and for that matter anyone who is intellectually curious.  The message is: what we do is none of your business, unless you plan to endorse it.  Questions are not to be asked and criticism will lead to consequences.  If the Republican Party can go after someone of Professor Cronon’s stature and reputation, then it stands to reason that people who are less well known, or are perhaps beginning their academic careers will be intimidated by Professor Cronon’s example.

You may be wondering how does one draw the inference that I have, based on a request to look at a few e/mails.  I turn to Professor Cronon’s analysis:

One answer is that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has explicit policies about appropriate use of its email accounts. In general, students and faculty members are only supposed to use their state email addresses for communications clearly related to the educational mission of the university.

Much more important, there is an explicit prohibition against individuals using state email addresses for partisan political purposes. Here’s the crucial sentence: “University employees may not use these resources to support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum.” (You can read these policies for yourself at

I’d be willing to bet quite a lot of money that Mr. Thompson and the State Republican Party are hoping that I’ve been violating this policy so they can use my own emails to prove that I’m a liberal activist who is using my state email account to engage in illegal lobbying and efforts to influence elections.  By releasing emails to demonstrate this, they’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic.


This isn’t the first time, the Republican party has resorted to intimidation, nor is it the first time it has sought to discredit an academic when that person’s research doesn’t correspond with the party line. It took about five minutes on google to find this story from 2003.  Some interesting names show up:

The piece mentions Campus Watch, which is part of the Middle East Forum. If you visit the website of Cursor’s Media Transparency, an organization that investigates right-wing foundations, you will discover that the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation fund the Middle East Forum.

Next the piece mentions William J. Bennett. Many of Bennett’s activities are funded by the far-right Heritage Foundation, which in turn is funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors’s Castle Rock Foundation and the Olin Foundation, among others.

Next mentioned is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Turns out this group is funded by … wait for it … the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Scaife, Coors, Olin and a few others.

Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, mentioned next, is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which is funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Olin, Coors and the Smith Richardson Foundation. Mrs. Cheney was also chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which received funds at the time by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and Olin.


In the final paragraph of American Thought Police. Krugman writes:

What’s at stake here, in other words, is whether we’re going to have an open national discourse in which scholars feel free to go wherever the evidence takes them, and to contribute to public understanding. Republicans, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, are trying to shut that kind of discourse down. It’s up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.

I’d hate to say it, but the Republican’s have been trying to shut that kind of discourse down for a very long time. Academic freedom doesn’t correspond with their creationist “theory”, their denial of global warming, or for that matter, anything in their corporatist agenda.
But Paul Krugman is absolutely right when he says: It’s up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.

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One Response to Attack on Academic Freedom

  1. Angie says:

    I find this article very timely! A friend of mine who works for Trinity University in Texas told me that all staff there was just recently reminded by the president of the university that all emails on their accounts at the university are subject to inspection at any time. She had asked me if she should get her own personal email account. I had told her, “H*$L, yes!!”. I guess I wasn’t a minute too soon! Think I should forward this email to her email address there? lol!