You could write a soap opera about this stuff.
You remember Wisconsin? Remember the teachers, cops, firefighters and other public employee unions?
Of course. And it’s still a mess. Gov. Scott “Ahab” Walker signed into law a bill that would have the effect of abrogating union contracts without any bargaining, but the skullduggery used to sneak the bill through the Wisconsin legislature opened the door to charges that Wisconsin open meetings laws were violated, and a judge has stayed the implementation of the law.
In the meantime, a Wisconsin historian stepped up to lend historical perspective to the whole affair. He thought he was turning on some lights, but Wisconsin Republicans have treated it like great heat.
[Off-topic note: Some creatures are negatively photo-tropic, which means they avoid light. You know, like the way the cockroaches in your first New York apartment scattered when you'd turn on the light.]
So, just as Virginia Attorney General and Chief Inquisitor and Witch Hunter Ken Cucinelli tried with those pesky scientists who keep finding the global temperature rising, Wisconsin Republican legislators have turned on the historian. Here’s how the New York Times‘ editorial, “A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin,” described it:
The historian, William Cronon, is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas research professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, and was recently elected president of the American Historical Association. Earlier this month, he was asked to write an Op-Ed article for The Times on the historical context of Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip public-employee unions of bargaining rights. While researching the subject, he posted on his blog several critical observations about the powerful network of conservatives working to undermine union rights and disenfranchise Democratic voters in many states.
In particular, he pointed to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group backed by business interests that circulates draft legislation in every state capital, much of it similar to the Wisconsin law, and all of it unmatched by the left. Two days later, the state Republican Party filed a freedom-of-information request with the university, demanding all of his e-mails containing the words “Republican,” “Scott Walker,” “union,” “rally,” and other such incendiary terms. (The Op-Ed article appeared five days after that.)
American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, in K Street lobbyist parlance.
But, Dear Reader, do you see the potential problem here for Republicans in Wisconsin? They have based their request on a Wisconsin law that prohibits private use of state-supplied e-mail — no politicking, no religious proselytizing.
What about all those ALEC e-mails to Wisconsin Republican legislators? Sure, they’re more than fair-game for such a witch hunt, too. And, since it’s the state Republican Party, and not a state or other public official making the FOIA request, surely that means the Republicans would not mind a similar request to cover contacts legislators had with the Wisconsin Republican Party, to the National Republican Party, or even ALEC itself.
Fair is fair, right?
ALEC generally has better lawyers than state legislators, and so we’d expect a group like that to recognize they could be in trouble.
Of course, purging of e-mails now would be a crime, a Watergate-style cover-up, destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice — after it’s become clear that there could be court action and claims of violation of law.
Jean Detjen provided links to the stories of the attacks on the distinguished Prof. Cronon over the last couple of days. In a Facebook exchange, I noted that ALEC is fair game for such a
witch hunt fishing expedition FOIA inquiry, too.
Don’t look now, Ms. Detjen said — but the ALEC site is down.
The server encountered an internal error and was unable to complete your request.
JRun closed connection.
[Here's a general link -- try it, and let me know when the site is back up, if Paul Weyrich and the other ALEC-ians don't skip to Brazil.]
Surely ALEC wouldn’t be illegally purging e-mails to Wisconsin, New York, Ohio, Texas, Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana and Florida legislators, would it?
Update: As of this evening, March 26, 2011, the ALEC site is back up. Why was it down?
The NYT editorial closed with this:
The party refuses to say why it wants the messages; Mr. Cronon believes it is hoping to find that he is supporting the recall of Republican state senators, which would be against university policy and which he denies. This is a clear attempt to punish a critic and make other academics think twice before using the freedom of the American university to conduct legitimate research.
Professors are not just ordinary state employees. As J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a conservative federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, noted in a similar case, state university faculty members are “employed professionally to test ideas and propose solutions, to deepen knowledge and refresh perspectives.” A political fishing expedition through a professor’s files would make it substantially harder to conduct research and communicate openly with colleagues. And it makes the Republican Party appear both vengeful and ridiculous.
Well, yeah, Wisconsin’s Republicans wouldn’t want to be caught stifling discussion, nor taking revenge on a whistle-blower — because certainly if Cronon’s e-mails are discoverable with an FOIA request, he is a Wisconsin state employee. “Whew,” the Wisconsin Republicans might wheeze: Wisconsin has no specific whistleblower protection. Ah, the plot thickens: There are general laws that would appear, to me, a no-longer-practicing-in-that-area lawyer, to offer some protections for any employee engaged in general political speech, or in speech protecting the employee’s rights, or in speech designed to shed light on a wrongful or wrongfully executed official act — that is, Cronon’s evidence showing the unsavory and potentially illegal links of legislators to businessmen and business groups, and the potential conspiracy issues of ALEC’s nationally-directed efforts to use state legislators to gut union laws.
I wish Ahab would just get Jesus and quit thickening the plot.
More, resources, links from Jean Detjen and others:
- Milwaukee’s papers, Journal Sentinal Online, “More on Prof. Cronon and ALEC”
- One of Cronon’s blogs, Scholarcitizen: “Who’s really behind recent Republican legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere? (Hint: It didn’t start here)
- ALECWatch’s 2002 newsletter, “A Big Business Agenda”
- Salon on March 25: “Wisconsin’s most dangerous professor — Why are Republicans desperate to see Bill Cronon’s emails? Because ideas and history matter”
Obviously, big tip of the old scrub brush to Jean Detjen, in Wisconsin.