The Cost of Freedom (of Information): In Defense of William Cronon

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

I am a huge fan of open government and of the Freedom of Information Act. The right of the people to request information from public officials is an important tool for journalism, research, and activism. That’s why, as I read responses to a political group’s request for e-mail correspondence from a state employee, my knee does not begin to jerk convulsively. I don’t think, “e-mail!? That’s outrageous! how dare you invade an individual’s privacy?” Not only do I know better than to think a work account is in any respect private or personal, but I remember how outraged I felt when I learned that top officials of the Bush White House used unofficial e-mail accounts to avoid their official correspondence being part of the record. (And I must say I am impressed that there’s a Wikipedia article on this very topic.)

All that said, I am appalled that officials of the Republican Party in Wisconsin have decided to use a public records law to peer into a University of Wisconsin history professor’s e-mail to see if he’s said anything they consider inappropriate and to find out if he can be attacked for violating the university’s policies. (An aside: as a born-and-bred Sconnie who spent my childhood hanging around the UW campus and playing tag in the basement hallways of the capital building, I am baffled and dismayed by recent events and wonder how it can possibly have happened in my home state; as a connoisseur of headlines, “Wisconsin Gets Weirder” is a keeper.)

The reason William Cronon is a target is that he is a prominent and respected historian and academic – and these days simply being an academic can make you the target of hostile commentary. More to the point, Cronon is also a citizen who has decided to use his research skills and scholarly habits of mind to understand what is going on in his state. What he has learned is fascinating and frightening, and the way he has explained it on his blog is a huge public service. I had no idea that a public policy group had been bringing together corporations and politicians since 1973 to draft legislation that could be used in statehouses across the country to advance conservative and business causes. There is nothing inherently sinister about that. Interest groups form and propose ideas that advance their interests all the time. I just had no idea that this group existed and was so influential. And that’s no doubt part of the strategy. Republicans, with leadership from a Wisconsin native and graduate of UW, have been extremely good at quietly creating influential political institutions, which is why they’re so good at dismantling political and public institutions they don’t like. The blog post Cronon wrote is not a hysterical rant or a dramatic revelation of conspiracies, though it could have been written in that mode. It actually reads like an argument for the importance of understanding our own history.

Dr. Cronon has since written a lengthy and considered response to the request for his e-mails and concluded “I support the Open Records Law and the freedom of information traditions of the United States. They are precious guardians of our democratic liberties. But this particular request demonstrates that they also have the potential to be abused in ways that discourage dissent and undermine democracy.” The Republican party’s official response? They claim the professor is trying to intimidate them. Also, he must be slacking off at work, because state employees shouldn’t have time to research political topics or write opinion pieces for the New York Times. (Again and again, in commentaries at the Times and elsewhere, many respondents express the sentiment that teachers and college professors who are public employees should not be allowed to express opinions about issues, even in their own time and in the context of their specialty; they should “shut up and teach” – which one commenter pointed out is difficult.) I treasure FOIA, but when it’s used to discourage and intimidate the exchange of information, it’s an abuse of the system analogous to a SLAPP lawsuit, a legal maneuver that is not intended to win in court, but rather to harass and drain resources to discourage public participation. This is not a partisan issue. This is a moral issue.

So why is a librarian writing about this? Am I slacking off work again? Shouldn’t I be shelving books or something? No, this actually is my job. Libraries are all about access to information and a big part of what I do is help students learn how to find and weigh evidence in the pursuit of truth. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but . . . yeah, educating people about tools for democracy and their ethical use definitely is in our job description. And we’re going to defend intellectual freedom in our subversively quiet and decorous way until our last breath.

There’s a big difference between using information to discover, learn, and create as opposed to using it to discredit, bamboozle, and destroy. This concept isn’t all that difficult to understand. I imagine first year undergraduates won’t have any trouble understanding it. All it really takes to know the difference is a sense of decency.

Originally published on March 28, 2011, in Inside Higher Ed.


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