going after email

Wisconsin Historian Bill Cronon’s NYT piece criticizing Wisconsin Republicans for their “radical break” got a lot of play earlier this week. Behind that piece was a March 15 scholarly blog post sketching the recent history of the Republican Party and the key role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in planning strategy. (The blog post is “required reading” on US politics if you have not seen it already.)

Yesterday, March 17 [edited to correct time order of events], the Republican party filed an Open Records request with University legal counsel asking for “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.”  Read his extensive blog post for details about the problem with this.

The Republicans have suffered a number of hits lately from the content of Scott Walker’s email, so it is at one level not surprising that they are trying to turn tables. But the target is an academic analysis of recent US political history by a political moderate that led to a well-regarded editorial, not a “to the barricades” political call.  Academics who work at public institutions take note. This fight is escalating.

9 Comments

  1. Posted March 25, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting about this. Unbelievable. I wonder how many faculty will move all their email correspondence over to something like gmail? That would be my response.

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  2. Posted March 25, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    While I agree that the reason for the request is purely political, I don’t think I agree that it should be refused. Ultimately it really is public record, at least in NC is clearly covered by public records laws, and I don’t see any reason why academic work is exempt from that. My experience is from NC, not WI, but here at UNC the procedure would be that the University Counsel’s office would assemble the requested messages and redact any that are purely personal in nature or whose release would violate FERPA or other laws. The remainder would be released. That strikes me as a reasonable approach.

    @shakha.1: at least under NC law, email composed or received in the conduct of state business (meaning all business of the University) is public record, regardless of whether it resides on a state email system. UNC has taken steps to prohibit us from conducting UNC business on outside email systems in order to reduce that confusion.

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  3. Posted March 25, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    You may be interested in information I received from our computer people. (Slightly redacted)
    The statutory definition of a “record” is “[anything] produced or received by any state agency or its officers or employees in connection with the transaction of public business.” (see http://archives.library.wisc.edu/records/legal.html#defining). A record can be an email, but not every email is a record. (If every email were a record, then you’d have to retain all your email so you could produce it in response to an open records request!) Note that there’s no requirement that the record be sent or received using state resources–if you’re conducting state (University) business via gmail, those messages are still records. However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled just last year that personal emails of government employees are not records and are not subject to open records requests (http://www.wisbar.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=InsideTrack&Template=/CustomSource/InsideTrack/contentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=85154, http://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=52285). I would have hoped that would be a no-brainer, but at least it was a 5-2 decision.

    Speaking very unofficially here, I know that the staff who handle email or make decisions about it take privacy very seriously, and we’ll do whatever we can to protect the privacy of your email. We’re not going to refuse an order that University Legal tells us we have to obey, so yes, it’s critical that the University fight these requests vigorously. On the other hand, the reason we retain backups of email stored on our server for a month rather than a year like the rest of your data is to limit your exposure to such requests. If you delete a message today that has been on the server overnight, it will still be available from backups for a month. (Trust me, this is good–we get far more requests from members to restore email they accidentally deleted than open records requests.) But after a month it is gone.

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  4. Posted March 26, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I picked this up from a commenter on Bill Cronon’s web site who referenced Eric Heubeck’s The Integration of Theory and Practice:A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement which was on the web site of the Free Congress Foundation 2001-6 and is now available through a web archive. Here’s the most salient quotation:

    “Movement Must Serve as a Force of Social Intimidation in Its Intermediate Stage
    We must create a countervailing force that is just as adept as the Left at intimidating people and institutions that are used as tools of left-wing activism but are not ideologically committed, such as Hollywood celebrities, multinational corporations, and university administrators. We must be feared, so that they will think twice before opening their mouths. They must understand that there is some sort of cost involved in taking a “controversial” stand–although positions cannot honestly be labeled “controversial” if conservatives are unable to mount a meaningful opposition. Perhaps once we are able to mount such an opposition, we will be able to take some of the trendiness out of leftist cultural activism, because lukewarm advocates of leftist causes will be forced to actually get their hands dirty. Support of leftist causes will no longer be the path of least resistance.”

    Note the emphasis on the importance of intimidating moderates.

    http://web.archive.org/web/20010713152425/www.freecongress.org/centers/conservatism/traditionalist.htm

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  5. sherkat
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the response will certainly be to put all of our correspondence in private servers, as if that is somehow more secure or appropriate. I really resent this. I got my first bitnet account in 1985, before Al Gore invented the internet. Now, because morons have discovered it, I’ll have to keep track of multiple communications sources, or else fascists might find out that I called some deanlet a fuckwad or something.

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    • Posted March 30, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Again, at least under NC public records law, the law applies to the records, not to the systems. Records created in the conduct of university business are public records even if held on private servers; those created for personal or confidential matters are not public records even if held on university servers.

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      • Posted March 30, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        According to our tech guy, the same is true in Wisconsin. BUT the Open Records request is not asking for Bill Cronon’s public records, it is asking for every email on the university server that contains any one of a long list of search terms. There is one view point that anything done on the university email server is, by definition, a public record.

        The main consequence of this trend is the further destruction of public universities in favor of private universities where faculty are not subject to this kind of attack.

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    • Posted March 30, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      sherkat, Virtually all employers claim that they have a right to inspect and limit the content of email sent through company-owned servers. Nobody should ever think that their work email accounts are wholly private. But being subject to external politically-motivated attacks is a special problem for public employees.

      One of the most ironic things is that if you ask a mass media organization for something from THEIR records, the first thing they say is “We are not covered by the Open Records law.” I got this response 3 for 3 as the first answer from the local TV stations when I was trying research their news stories.

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  6. Posted April 2, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Here is the university’s reply to the Cronon request. It is very nicely done: http://scholarcitizen.williamcronon.net/2011/04/01/uw-madison-balancing-test/

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