Executive Council Deplores Open-Records Requests that Infringe Academic Freedom

The Executive Council approved the following statement in April 2011.

The Modern Language Association deplores the recent request by Stephan Thompson, the deputy executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, for the e-mail records of William Cronon, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Invoking section 19.32(2) of Wisconsin’s open-records law, Thompson has specifically requested “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.”

The MLA considers this an inappropriate use of section 19.32(1) of the Wisconsin State statutes; this section refers only to an “authority”—defined as an entity such as a state or local office, elected official, board or commission, governmental or quasi-governmental corporation, and the state assembly and senate—holding “records” as defined in section 19.32(2). It does not refer to professors at state universities. The MLA therefore regards this request as a form of intimidation and as a dangerous challenge to Cronon’s academic freedom to comment on public affairs as a citizen, as established by the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors. In its opposition to this request, the MLA joins its colleagues at the American Historical Association.

The MLA further notes that in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has made similar requests of labor-studies centers at Wayne State University, Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The requests ask the universities to provide all e-mails written by the employees and contractors of their labor-studies centers between 1 January and 25 March 2011 containing the words Scott Walker, Wisconsin, Madison, and Maddow (in reference to Rachel Maddow); they ask also for “any other e-mails dealing with the collective-bargaining situation in Wisconsin.” The MLA condemns the politicized intrusion on faculty and staff members at these institutions and calls on Wayne State University, Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to dismiss these requests.