Should Professors in Public Universities Give up their Email Addresses?

The latest McCarthyite tactics of the American Right Wing is to attempt to intimidate professors at public universities by launching Freedom of Information Requests for their emails, as part of a witch hunt for dreaded Liberal Opinions.

First, the proxies for the Koch brothers in the Wisconsin legislature went after the emails of prominent University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon (the incoming head of the American Historical Association). The reasoning here is that state laws typically prohibit the use of state resources for partisan political activity, and those states with open meeting laws want to make sure that state resources are not used for political plotting in smoke-filled rooms.

Then, as Rachel Maddow explains below, a Koch-brothers-funded think tank in Michigan requested the emails of professors in this state, including the University of Michigan, including those that mention Maddow’s name.

Academics are given tenure to protect their free speech from political reprisals, and this misuse of the Freedom of Information and Open Meeting provisions is intended to take back some of that intellectual freedom, as the Modern Language Association has correctly argued.. Despite the US first amendment, which is replicated in state constitutions, free speech in the US is rare. One is mainly protected from reprisals by the US or state governments by those articles. (And, of course, the First Amendment has seen better days, since what with Federal government snooping into our emails and other communications, the possibilities for behind-the-scenes reprisals have multiplied).

People who work for large corporations have their free political speech interfered with all the time. People have been fired for blogging. Since most Americans work for companies concerned about their public image, most don’t actually have free speech, which is how the multi-billionaires like it. Academics are among the very few who can speak out on public issues and keep their jobs, and it is obvious that even they now are going to be shut up if at all possible.

It is legitimate to bar bureaucrats from using state resources for partisan party purposes. But for academics to discuss labor policy by email with colleagues is in a different category. Indeed, if labor historians cannot discuss labor policy in private with colleagues, they will be prevented from getting feedback for their ideas, and that would be a detraction from the purposes of tenure. It will also detract from the purpose for which the academic was hired by the people of the state, which is precisely to think critically about society. Academics are a strange sort of bureaucrat charged with skepticism of shibboleths. And, yes, the public has a say in hiring us. In Michigan, regents are elected by the public and run on party bases. The regents finalize the award of tenure, which is almost always a bipartisan decision, though it would be rare that politics came into it.

The point of the intimidation by the Right wing legislators and think tanks is to detract from academic free speech.

Ironically, at a time when Tunisia has abolished its ‘Ministry of Information,’ which was charged with censoring the speech of suspicious people like professors, the United States is descending into a relentless Ben-Aliism fomented by our class of super-rich, our own Trabelsis. Indeed, it is not entirely clear that you can have a democracy when so many of your people have few resources but when you have 400 billionaires (and more people worth $700 mn.) who can buy and sell legislators and have the laws written for the benefit of their corporations. What chance would mere workers and unions (now representing only 9% of the American labor force) have in the face of this dense, black-hole-like concentration of grasping Capital? What chance would mere professors in their ivory towers have of being heard above the cacophony of corporate ‘news’? It is unclear to me why the Right wing is so insecure. Everything has been going their way for decades, why bother to try to snuff out even embers of dissent?

Nor is it wise to put ideas in the heads of political opponents. Almost all political scientists do some consulting on political campaigns. Democrats could also foia the Business School professors and right of center political scientists at public universities. There could be bipartisan abuse, with the scholars caught in the middle.

One unremarked problem here is the whole idea of email. In the old days, professors would write out a letter on a typewriter and send it by land mail to colleagues. They would own the typewriter. The likelihood that any judge would allow an outside body to snoop through that landmail was vanishingly small, unless there was reasonable cause, i.e. strong reason to suspect illegality. Besides the letter could be written after work hours and it wasn’t state property.

Of course, even in the days of landmail, there was McCarthyism, in which the FBI pressured university administrations to try and fire professors for publishing left wing ideas. We still commemorate the three fired at the University of Michigan, one of them let go for espousing “Scandinavian economics.” (Note the donation link.) But on the whole, landmail was safe enough.

When the University of Michigan began providing email addresses to its professors in the 1980s, it was unwittingly putting them in a fishbowl. There have been instances before of private individuals harassing academics with FOIA requests.

But what is now happening strikes me as intolerable. Unless the laws are changed to protect legitimate academic exchanges on controversial (and therefore conceivably “political”) issues, I think professors at public universities should consider abandoning their university emails. (I switched to Yahoo and then Gmail years ago for most purposes other than making office hours appointments, but I think I have to seriously consider just getting rid of the darn thing altogether. Since a lot of University business requires a ‘uniquename’ attached to an email address, I’m not sure how that would work. But maybe we need a big change in how things work, anyway. I do almost all of my email after 5 pm, moreover, so it isn’t on university time.)

Of course, correspondence on university business could still be foiaed, but it would be easy enough to keep a separate private email address for that narrow purpose.


See also thisanalysis by the Center for Campus Free Speech

29 Responses

  1. “It is unclear to me why the Right wing is so insecure. Everything has been going their way for decades, why bother to try to snuff out even embers of dissent?” They “bother” because they are exterminationists in a long line of American exterminationists beginning with the wars against Native Americans. Not content to merely prevail this intolerant philosophy demands extermination of opposition. This, from their point of view, is existential. No opposition may be allowed to exist. It is a totalitarian point of view.

  2. So right, Juan. I am in secondary ed and our teacher emails were requested and received by a member of the school board. Six of the eight people’s info requested were on our union negotiating team. If anyone doubts that our rights are under full assault, and by people who will wave the flag and say it is for greater ‘freedom’, think again.

  3. “a Koch-brothers-funded think tank…”

    Please consider the following terminology:

    “a Koch-brothers-funded parrot cage

  4. Although this kind of intimidation is horrible, there’s an easy way to avoid any problems.

    1. Use your own damn computer, on your own time in your own house/apt. End of story.

    2. Don’t think your workplace is entitled to give you time to indulge your own foibles, whatever they may be. It doesn’t matter if it’s political discussions or e-mailing pictures of the grand=kids, do it on your own time…duh!

    If academics are discussing issues or concerns relevant to their particular fields of study or expertise, then that’s a different matter…go ahead, keep everything legit and un-embarrassing and put up with the same rules of FOIA like everyone else.

    • I’m afraid that it is not as cut and dry as that. Professors should have the right to discuss social issues among one another. That is different from discussing how to defeat a Democratic or Republican member of the state legislature. Nor are such discussions an ‘open meeting.’ But what is happening is that the discussion of social issues is being reclassified as a form of partisan politics by the Koch brothers’ lackeys. Next discussing global warming or evolution will be criminalized. Professors are not ordinary state employees, they are charged with thinking critically about social issues.

  5. No one should ever use their “business” email for anything they don’t want published in a public court transcript.

    It is ALWAYS best to assume that your enemies will have unrestrained access to every email account they know about.

    That is why I have “throwaway” email accounts all over the world. I can express myself freely with minimal chance that anyone will know my real name and location.

    You are good to use non-business email accounts.

    Note that the Bush administration understood this well, so they used lots of non-government email systems to conduct their business such as invading Iraq and Afghanistan.

    • Listen to yourself. You sound like you live in a Totalitarian state! This is how university professors should have to live in a supposedly free society?

      • Juan, I am a technologist and am well aware just how unsecure email can be (in fact it was never designed to be secure, this is why it is so easy for spammers to exploit it).

        For example, every packet of information you send or receive transits through a router that can be set up to record everything you do (I have done this in the past to investigate intellectual property theft).

        If Google gets a court order, especially from the US government, they must give the court everything in your email account without telling you they did it (your court system at work).

        And the list goes on of the ways people can tap your email both legally and illegally.

        We can debate what is right and proper, but from a practical perspective, unless you make the effort to mask your identity, your email is completely open to all that want to see it.

        I am not condoning the actions that some people take to access your data, but only pointing out that it is technically very easy and often legally easy.

      • I second what SpyGuy68 says. Google for examplel is a very bad choice for sequestering private data. Google retain all email indefinitely. You’d be better off with a company outside of the US with private hosting where deleted email is not retained. Even then you are not secure, but you have a fighting chance.

  6. You are absolutely right about the politics of this. It would be worthwhile to have your University Senate request that the Office of Legal Counsel inform faculty of their particular rights in this situation. The lawyers at the University of MN just reviewed this issue for our Senate Faculty Consultative Committee. The upshot is that Data Privacy Act requests of public universities can get at any communications–text messages, email, snail mail–from any device (personal or university-owned) that has to do with your work, but cannot get any material protected by other privacy acts such as FERPA (students’ grades or identifying information, for example). What is more, your personal communications are NOT subject to the DPA. This means that the university would have to review and redact or exclude such material, as Wisconsin has done in this case. The laws may vary by state (in Wisconsin they are not supposed to use University computers for personal communication whereas in Minnesota this is permitted). However, the U of MN lawyers also stated that they only review material with the permission of the individual (they don’t snoop) and that their access to private accounts, while still subject to DPA requests, depends on the individual’s permission. They also emphasized that each message’s relevance to work was a contextual decision, not one that only depended on keywords. In other words, these requests are also a huge waste of public resources because the lawyers must spend huge amounts of time reviewing the material to decide what is subject to DPA and what is not.
    They also reminded us that we can delete messages, and delete them again; keep hard copies of the most important communications we need to save, but not junk up our email with stuff we don’t need, and remember that anything we send (electronically or otherwise) can end up on the front page of the New York Times. While none of this advice obviates your main point about the chilling effect of abusive requests intended to harass rather than seek information for legitimate purposes (investigating fraud, for example), we should not be under the illusion that the format of the communication or the device used means our WORK-related communication is not discoverable.

  7. Excellent article about curtailing free speech. In my experience, there are fewer professors who speak out than there were in the “old days.” There were more professors back then who were individuals, now all too often, professors are like employees of a corporation, camped out in some sub field where they write papers for their peers.

    We are undergoing a collapse of our empire and all too many academics have not been engaged with pointing out where things were goings. I well recall early in the last decade when Paul Krugman stood out from the crowd and for a time was the number one target of the right wing.

    For the most part, the right wing won the debate and pushed the country farther and farther to the right so that our current president, running in the Democratic faction, continues to move to the right and to curtail civil liberties.

    We don’t even have parties, we have two factions. The elections are so close that the factions can continue to play their games back and forth and as a country we have not been working the meaningful problems for decades. Problems like education, infrastructure, the environment, jobs have been lost in the BS and lost white women. The spectacle has won.

    Julian Assange pointed out that the social media like facebook and twitter are in fact the ultimate control mechanisms by the state.

    Juan Cole’s blog shows what academics should do to influence policy and the billionaires are trying everything they can to kill off debate and our very system.

    These are dire times. It is worse than McCarthy. For example, the US is a bottom up country, building from the local up to the states. It was so much a part of our DNA that no one thought about constitutional safeguards for state and local government. Thus, they can be destroyed and it is hard to stop it. Maybe there has been over reach and people (hard to call what we have as citizens, we have voters instead, another kind of shopper making choices) realize that something is at stake.

    Is it too late? I hope not but fear the worse.

    Sorry for this ling comment, but this is the stuff that I think about all the time. Everywhere one looks the systems are falling apart.

    • Over the years academics have been tamed quite a bit. Not just socialization, but political/intellectual emasculation, which is what this stuff is making painfully obvious. Universities nowadays are implicitly seen/justified as trade schools: notice the importance/support given schools of engineering and business. Polisci is the pre-law trade school, and the natural sciences are for pre-meds, (aside from those who want to go into teaching trade). Knowledge for knowledge’s sake, go fish.

      When hiring or supporting profs, the single most valued skill is grantsmanship (with apologies to the fast shrinking poplulation of the hip-pocket liberal arts schools with big endowments). Profs are rarely valued (substantively) for the ability to provoke thought or further scholarship, unless that scholarship is somehow grant underwritten or will lead to something worthwhile in the sense that univerities have assumed much of the work previously done by industry R&D (versus genuine basic research).

      Of course, you have your philosophers and historians. But even a gadfy (to the system,that is ;-)) like Prof Cole, undoubtly gets points for “contributing,” with the talks and seminars he does with the military and other government professionals from time to time. Overall, I have the sense professors, and most anyone wanting to make a future in the world today, need to play a game increasingly sensitive to…the market.

  8. Isn’t this exactly what the Bush White House did by using RNC servers, and later by “losing” several million emails (the rough equivalent of the missing moments on the Nixon tapes).

    Big brother, art thou here among us?

  9. As you say, an important role of the university professor is “to think critically about society,” including leading students in critical evaluations of political and social movements within society. This differentiates from “training” students for jobs with the corporations and grooming conformity. Once again, as with demanding loyalty oaths of professors at UBerkeley back in the McCarthy period, we’re now seeing fanatical right wing pressure on the academic establishment. A lively university environment and exchange of views from all sides in controversies is essential to education–versus brainwashing the workforce.

  10. Report on NPR a few days ago yielded some surprising twists. One, if I’m not mistaken (and it was too startling to have been gotten wrong), was that the case law is extending email foraging to “off-campus” accounts for public officials (whether or not this would effect a prof, as some sort of public official?) This may be constrained by distinguishing between purely speculative fishing in public records vrs an ongoing civil/criminal investigation, but the essense of it was that these were officials about which the public had a right to know. This intrepretation seems to have derived from how Bush operatives where doing all sorts of stuff on non white house/govt servers. Where I a high-profile prof at a place like Michigan I would assume there were crosshairs on me and that with enough money the lawyers can always make an arguement (just call John Yoo). But this you already know.

    Intimidation is clearly the objective. Still, assuming a prof is tenured, there is at least some protection if he can take relatively harmless political heat, and I think guys like Cronan know what they’re getting into by lending their voice to anything. But I’m thinking more about how Mearsheimer and Walt would’ve been toast were it not only for their tenure, but also the sheer weight of their reputations publishing the Israel Lobby. Putting aside a case like Norm Finklestein, a common (tenured) associate at a place like Iowa State would have found himself in an un-heated broom closet (or worse) for saying the wrong thing to/about the wrong people.

    I’m of the realist school, and looking at history you have to acknowledge it is a long ways from here to hearing your door broken down by thugs at 4 am, BUT things can and do change more quickly than most of us would like to think. We know we are on thin ice, in the sense of cultural constraints to the contrary, when you see the work of a guy who pretty much single-handedly took down ACORN, got caught trying to bug a Senator’s office, and STILL has not been dissuaded from his activities, contemporary standards for acceptable behavior being what they are.

    Ultimately, in a changing and increasing fluid world, we cannot get too tied into notions of security and invulnerablity. Even amongst tenured profs. If you want to keep speaking you have to be willing, push comes to shove, to bag your gig at the University, or if things get physical, check out totally and disappear. My in-laws parents left established careers/extended families in Germany in the early 1930′s because of the trends, and they weren’t even Jews.

  11. Why isn’t Joe McCarthy being mentioned more in discussion of this campaign of intimidation?

    1. The mainstream media loves to talk about McCarthy in the context that he was defeated – the system worked, the corporate media eventually did the right thing. But if it all happens a second time…

    2. The Right is taking public positions unimaginable even under Bush. Governors talking nullification and secession, attacks on the 14th Amendment, claims that Hitler was a “liberal”. So clearly Tailgunner Joe is on the agenda for political rehabilitation. Get set to have Fox relentlessly hammer us on how he was a hero who caused no harm.

    3. The way is being prepared for a new MacCarthy – one not tainted by having been elected to office, since we know democracy is tainted by all those un-Americans voting. No, the new MacCarthy must be a corporate employee… uh, “entrepreneur”. That makes the libertarians and militias very happy. Whether it’s Beck or someone even worse being groomed and fine-tuned to succeed him hardly matters.

  12. It’s ironic that these pressures would push people to behave in the same way that the Bush II and Palin administrations did (abandoning their official e-mail and using outside systems so as to avoid there being a record of the highly partisan nature of their official actions.)

    If you’re going to be serious about de-linking from the publicly funded e-mail system, it’s best to use your own laptop, pay for your own cellular connection (eg. Sprint, Verizon, etc.) and be fastidious about never connecting the machine to the University’s hard-wired or wireless network.

    In thinking about this situation of FOIAing a professor’s professional communications, it’s surprising to me that there seems to be a black-or-white private/fully disclosed situation. If I understand correctly, there is no screening of the FOIA’d material – that a search is run for certain words, and all the matches are dumped into public availability. It seems that a reasonable compromise would be for there to be a review of the material generated by the initial key word search, and that only objectionable and questionable material be released, leaving innocuous communications private.

    (Then again, it’s always best to think of e-mail as a postcard. The standard e-mail system is a “quaint” holdover of the very early days of the academic internet – there is no encryption or “hiding” of standard e-mail’s content. Like a post card, anyone can pick it up at any point and read it, even if it is sent through the postal system like letters sealed in envelopes. That’s simply the technical reality of the e-mail protocol. On the other hand, no, government shouldn’t be allowed to read/scan e-mails without standard search warrants, even if it’s technically very easy to do.)

    • Actually the University of Wisconsin did shield some of Cronon’s emails from scrutiny on grounds of being purely academic or purely personal. I don’t like the idea of the university counsel or other administrator making that call, though Cronon says that UW did a good job.

    • The actual rational initial used in denying privacy to emails is that they were very much like post-cards. That was the analogy use by the courts at that time.

  13. It is important to note that these searches have been defended as a sort of “tit-for-tat” or retaliation for the FOIA email release from Governor Walker’s office. That led to the discovery of the incitement email which led to the resignation of a GOP official from another state.

    The FOIA request directed at Walker’s office came from, I believe, a newspaper and not a political or labor organization. At the height of the protests against Walker’s legislation, the Governor was claiming that emails coming into his office were showing huge support for his policies. The FOIA request was made to see if that claim had validity (which it did not). This is a very different scenario compared to political operatives using FOIA on fishing expeditions to discredit those they perceive as their opponents. But the Right does not do critical thinking very well at all.

  14. “It is unclear to me why the Right wing is so insecure. Everything has been going their way for decades, why bother to try to snuff out even embers of dissent?”

    I’ve been wondering the same thing. I think it’s indicative of the winner-take-all, unconditional surrender (and frankly, eliminationist) mind-set of the american right-wing. It’s why they love or tolerate guns, nukes, a vastly disproportionate military, personal attacks/racism, monopolism, inequality, etc so much. Any means to get to the end where they can say, “ha…now that’s gone/out of my way – forever – now I can be god!” IMO, in general, they can’t function unless all challenges/hindrances to their ego/power/money hoarding is completely destroyed.

    • Because they keep believing that if they turn the clock far enough back, Paradise will erupt.

      Why? Because they’re sure there’s too much equality in the world now, whereas in the past their kind had a monopoly on power therefore it must have been great. The Confederacy for the states’ righters, the Gilded Age for the libertarians, the Pax Britannica for the neocons, and the Old Testament for the Christian theocrats. Note that all of these point to the 19th century, even the religious example since many Protestants of that time tried to push Old Testament principles.

      But the idyllic America they worship never existed. So they keep pushing further back into the past, into ever more primitive, barbaric times. Now they are to the right of the Founding Fathers, so the Pilgrims and Medieval feudalism are the next goalposts.

  15. I agree. The right wing shouldn’t support this because what if it is used against them? For instance, what if teachers are persecuted for speaking against global warming or gay -marriage in email?

    • Because it’s different when a “patriot” is persecuted. That’s just proof that the enemy is all around us, using rights that only real Americans should be allowed to have. One does not even have to explain to the followers what the solution is…

  16. Coincidentally, when the U of M started giving emails in the late 80s it was figuratively putting professors in a fishbowl in two ways inasmuch as accessing the computer center required one to walk through “the Fishbowl.”

  17. Hi Juan,

    I wouldn’t give up your university email anytime soon. And I’d be using an email provider for your personal email who allows you to delete and eliminate past emails (you can download those emails for safe storage).

    If you are using an external email for work-related matters, everything on it becomes fair game for work related searches.

    I.e. you have to at least make a pretense of using your university email for all official and work business.

  18. Juan, I hope you can enjoy messages as much as I do ;-)
    From Kanukistan ThirthyFifth’ floor, first ceiling, building three, commander thirsty, how about that!
    Smile ;-)))))
    Son of Khadaffi number 507 ;-)

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