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