With Wisconsin legislators between sessions and the budget repair bill temporarily tied up in the courts, state Republicans and Democrats have—relatively speaking—taken a welcome break from the political pettiness that's become so standard this term.
That is, until March 17, when the Republican Party of Wisconsin—spear-headed in this particular case by Stephan Thompson—decided to take a run at UW-Madison's revered history professor William Cronon.
Cronon posted a blog entry March 15 examining the influence the American Legislative Exchange Council may have on conservative policy making in the state. Two days later, the RPW submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all of Cronon's e-mails since Jan. 1, 2011, containing words including ""Republican,"" ""union"" and ""recall,"" acronyms like ""WEAC"" and ""AFSCME"" and names including Gov. Scott Walker, both Fitzgerald brothers and all eight Republican legislators subject to recall efforts.
Legally, there is little room to complain about the FOIA request. Although professors at state universities have vastly different job descriptions and day-to-day communications from nearly all other state workers, they are still public employees.
Cronon said he takes care to limit his university account usage to work-related communications, but expressed concern that some conversations with students—which are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Protection Act—and colleagues may be unnecessarily or illegally made public.
Those sentiments lead to this board's concerns over the RPW's actions. That is, combing through three months of Cronon's e-mails is simply not necessary. The RPW said itself that a reason is not necessary in order to file an open records request, and that's true. Still, employing a law designed to promote transparency and accountability without disclosing your intentions for doing so screams foul play and hypocrisy.
Cronon has not given us any reason to suspect him of political alliances. Both his blog post on the ALEC and his op-ed in the New York Times March 21 are significantly tamer than the criticisms that have come from all over the country and even some of Cronon's colleagues in the UW-Madison history department. This move is just the RPW's blatant attempt at obtaining information in the hopes of jeopardizing Cronon's reputation.
As the president-elect of the National Historical Association, a Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur Scholarship award winner, Cronon is as well-respected in his field as he is decorated. This, of course, doesn't mean that if he were suspected of illegal activity he should be exempt from investigation.
However, amidst budget cuts and belt-tightening, UW-Madison will have enough challenges when it comes to retaining elite faculty. We cannot afford to have politicians from either side of the aisle targeting public employees—particularly those whose job titles suggest they analyze political happenings—just because they happen to disagree with policy decisions.
This sort of harassment is not unprecedented in this state and is not exclusive to Republicans.
It needs to stop. Political discourse has degraded to the point of petty bickering and wild goose chases over the last two months in Wisconsin. The RPW needs to leave Professor Cronon alone and focus on rebuilding an atmosphere of civility in the Capitol.