AHA Deplores Effort to Intimidate William Cronon

The American Historical Association deplores recent efforts by the deputy executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party to intimidate William Cronon, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the incoming president of the AHA. William CrononFor more than a century, professional historians have drawn on their research to engage in wider debates about politics and society. Working within that tradition, Professor Cronon has used his deep knowledge of American history to provide a historical context for the recent events in Wisconsin. In the process, he has enriched our understanding of the present as well as the past. If the Republican Party of Wisconsin had followed its own finest principles, it would have challenged his historical account and invited him to participate in a public conversation about the issues he has raised. Instead, it has demanded that the university supply copies of emails to and from Cronon that mention certain politicians and activities.

The purpose of the state’s Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings. We call on public-spirited individuals and organizations to join us in denouncing this assault on academic freedom, and in asking the Wisconsin Republican party to withdraw its request, and to participate in a forthright and fair public conversation about the issues Professor Cronon has raised. To remain silent is to acquiesce in an attempt to deprive not only Professor Cronon, but scholars everywhere, of the right to address public issues.

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  1. Dennis Coran

    You could contact the Wisconsin GOP regarding this matter at:

    Wisconsin Republican Party
    148 East Johnson Street
    Madison, Wisconsin 53703
    (608) 257-4765

  2. Richard Lyon

    It is not an intimidation attempt. The open records law is purpose neutral – its not the laws business what the motivation for seeking the information is. That is irrelevant. Any and all uses of the open records law are good. Its purpose is to make government transparent. Cronon is a public servant, using a public resource. His communications using that public resource should be easily open to review.

  3. devon cannon

    “It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.”

    That is the whole point.

  4. Kirstin Pires

    Here is the contact info for the WI GOP:
    Wisconsin Republican Party
    148 East Johnson Street Madison, Wisconsin 53703 (608) 257-4765

  5. Anthony H.

    “Any and all uses of the open records law are good.”

    The ORIGINAL intended use of the law was for government to be transparent. The timing, and use, of the law now by the WI Republican party is an unintended use: to silence opposition.

  6. A. S.

    Mr. Lyon,

    Perhaps you would like the Family Education Rights & Privacy Act to be repealed. Until it is, this open records request is likely in conflict with federal law and is recognized by our legal system as an invasion of privacy which ought not be respected.

  7. Liz Newton

    Echoing others- Thank you for standing up for Bill and all of us who are being bullied by the Walker administration in Wisconsin.

  8. Kenny Tavares

    Thank you for publicly supporting your incoming president. I’m sure he also appreciates your support.

    Teachers are not considered public servants and politicians should not use the confusion over this definition to quiet free (and informed) speech. Including educators in the open records law corrupts the law’s meaning.

  9. Maria Pascualy

    Of course it is an attempt at intimidation. Please do not be so willfully ignorant of what has and is still going on in Wisconsin.

  10. Jim Carls

    “It is not an intimidation attempt. ” That is precisely — and very obviously — what it is, and your false naivete makes me wonder if you don’t work for the Wisconsin Republicans.

  11. Brian

    Contacting them now to voice my displeasure in my Republican Party. I have watched the events unfold 5 block from my house here in Madison. The right to protest is a right shared by all. Republicans have appalled me in the past 2 months here in Wisconsin. I am disgusted and disgraced at the leadership in my state. hang head

  12. Laurence Jarvik

    You got caught, so are screaming bloody murder and betraying your purported principles. The AHA call for denunciation is neither civil discourse, nor debate, nor conversation. Show us the emails, so we might judge the evidence on its merits. Or does AHA have something to hide?

  13. Lori Cole

    @Richard Lyon: Indeed, the Open Records Law is purpose-neutral; however, its use in this particular case, in this particular manner, is patently not.

  14. Peter Stone

    Many in the Republican Party of today seem to fear free and open debate and rely on propaganda and intimidation to win and cling to power. Naturally they would view objective historians as a threat.

  15. Rheinhard

    “Caught”? Caught at what? Mr. Jarvik is apparently so energized to attack anything and everything that raises the slightest question or complaint about heavy-handed Republican tactics that he (a) assumes there is some sort of “crime” here, when not even the FOIA request contains even a single allegation of actual wrongdoing (such accusations to come later, once something can be manufactured out of whatever can be found in said emails, of course), and (b) is resorting to the now tired cliche that any questioning, no matter how reasoned or restrained, of his corporate Republican masters is “uncivil” and automatically unreasonable. Fascinating concept of “free speech” some Americans seem to have…

  16. Christopher Fox

    “If you aren’t guilty, you should have nothing to hide” combines two fallacies: begging the question and ad hominem. That defenders of the Wisconsin GOP’s FOIA request should have to resort to such “arguments” says a lot about their commitment to intellectual honesty, if not their base, political motives.

  17. Pat Campbell

    Thank you for this. The Republican Party’s intimidation and thuggery in this instance is deplorable. You can’t intimidate people out of public discourse! What happened to their professed belief in freedom? Surely that entails a freedom of expression without free of retaliation, particularly for a scholar with tenure? Disappointing and pathetic.

  18. Viking

    I have read WI’s open records act over and over and it specifically refers to state officials in the performance of official acts. How does that fit a university professor?

  19. Rupert McGill

    Politics ain’t beanbag. If professors want to wade into the thick of present-day political disputes, they should expect to play by the same rules of openness and transparency as do the other participants in the political process. To stake out unequivocal political positions but then retreat behind the mantle of professordom whenever someone seeks to shed a little sunlight on things smacks of hypocrisy and entitlement.

  20. Paul Winkeler

    Of course it is an intimidation attempt and yet it should simply be honored. One-way open-records don’t work. If the professor was acting as a private individual then there would be no public records act to grant access to his email. But, as a public servant he is subject to such requests. “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”. Always did, and always will.
    The professor should simply give up his email and turn around and request any and all communications from all members of the Wisconsin legislature be published on an RSS feed for all to see.

  21. audrey fisher

    Professor Cronon has already stated that he has nothing to hide on his state employee computer. The Wisc. FOIA can only asks for that information. Imagine their faces when they find that he is a smart guy and didn’t use the state computer.

    What next from the GOP? demand that because he is a state employee, even his privately owned PC can be searched? Then we will know with certainty that was indeed a way to try and intimidate an individual. They will sound like facist!

    What will all the GOP diehards do when their political party is fully discredited?

  22. Darryl Myers

    No one has accused William Cronon of committing an actual crime, like embezzling money or producing child pornography. The only thing this request seeks to uncover is opinions on political matters, which ought to be protected by the First Amendment.

    Two more quick points:

    It’s very likely that many if not most of the E-mails in question concern Prof. Cronon’s students. If so, having outsiders look at them, even if they are not revealed publicly, violates the Family Education Rights & Privacy Act of the students, as a previous poster mentioned.

    The law in Wisconsin applies to “public officials.” It’s not clear that a university professor is an “official” since he neither holds nor seeks elective or appointive office. Furthermore, only about 20% of the University of Wisconsin’s budget comes from state taxpayers. So it’s also not clear how “public” the position Prof. Cronon holds is.

  23. Mary Pearlman

    Professional educators are not elected officials or Government employees, and neither Frank Luntz nor Rush Limbaugh can make it so.

  24. eric pfeifer

    “If professors want to wade into the thick of present-day political disputes, they should expect to play by the same rules of openness and transparency as do the other participants in the political process.”

    This is a fallacious argument. Pundits, journalists, and other ‘participants in the political process’ are not held to the same standard of transparency as elected officials. It is questionable if a professor at a public university meets the standard of ‘elected official’.

    I also object to your language ‘wade into the thick of’. Criticism is equivalent to a political attack? Just how sensitive is the Wisconsin GOP that they can’t handle a little disagreement? Dr. Cronon’s remarks must have been right on the money for the state Republicans to react in such a petty manner.

  25. Carl

    Cronon’s piece went against everything historians are told to do when analyzing our work. Almost zero context was given on the political situation or McCarthy.

    He calls the Republican move to pass the collective bargaining measure as a separate bill as “extreme” and argues it’s an attack on democracy while saying absolutely nothing about the fact that Democrats couldn’t attend the meeting with only two hours notice because they had fled the state in order to block the bill. To act like there hadn’t been an open debate on the budget bill after two weeks of nationally televised protests is dishonesty to the point of absurdity.

  26. David Derbes

    If the logic were taken to its absurd conclusion, any physician working for a state funded hospital would have to make public all email concerning her or his patients. Other absurdities can be added.

    While the clear intent of this action is to intimidate other professors and other employees of the state from saying anything, FOIA is designed to be used in cases of elected officials concealing records that ought not be concealed. As has been pointed out, Prof. Cronon is not an elected official.

    The Wisconsin Republican Party isn’t making itself any more attractive by these totalitarian tactics. So long as we have a democracy in this country, this isn’t a winning strategy. Wiser heads should prevail, but they won’t.

  27. Knute K. Knutson

    Contacting the Wisconsin Republican Party and asking them to withdraw the request is futile. They are impervious to reason. Don’t waste your time.

  28. Ian

    @Rupert McGill, you clearly have not read any of Prof. Cronon’s writings that got him into this mess. He passes no judgment on the anti-union legislation itself, and is not a member of any public employee union. He merely did what any good historian does – provide context for the events that are occurring. Moreover, this mantra of “politics ain’t beanbag” does not give political officials free reign to do whatever they want, and is fallacious to assume that it exculpates any actions associated. If anything, such a belief is what has lead to such a toxic and diseased political culture in this country, where anyone who dares voice anything that opposes a dominant narrative is considered suspicious and an enemy. We should all do what Dr. Cronon ultimately advocates: to do our own research, look at the text with our own eyes, and come to a conclusion of our own thinking. Unfortunately, people like you are obsessed with finding anything that justifies your preconceived notions and silencing anything that has the temerity to challenge your established worldview. I shudder for the day academic is forced to go down this road.

  29. Lawrence Peskin

    1) This is the best argument I have seen in a long time for the relevance of tenure.

    2) Is the argument for “using state” resources that he uses his U of W email account, which costs the state as close to nothing as you can get?

  30. P. J. Jewell

    This is an interesting example of that “personal infringement” that the Tea Party Clan claims they abhor…(unless it suits their purposes of harassment & intimidation.) Open Records Law was intended to promote governmental transparency to its citizenry. It was not intended as a mechanism of silencing the people.

  31. Jeremy Vill

    What is pretty clear is:

    1. The FOIA law applies to “elected officials”. The most cursory reading of the law indicates how frivolous (and harassing) this request really is.

    2. Lots of noise has been made by people on this list, and elsewhere, about “nothing to hide” and other such (creepy) nonsense. The truth of the matter is Walker and his GOP buddies have spent oodles more time trying to discredit Cronon but have yet to respond to any of his well documented analysis. “nothing to hide” indeed.

    It’s not surprising to see the small army of GOP soldiers go forth with their orders to discredit anyone who questions Dear Leader. But it is surprising how the GOP didn’t even BOTHER to respond, outside of ad hominem attacks and a smear job. Is this how one of America’s great political parties is going to treat critics? Ignore the criticism and attack the person?

    If we really are going to go down that road—I’d like to see all of Gov Walker’s emails regarding the union busting bill, the Koch brothers, outside financial interests, plans to incite riots in the protest crowds, and plenty of other emails that WOULD fall under the WI FOIA law.

  32. Gillian Dale

    On the matter of civility and fairness, i would urge people to read for themselves Prof. Cronon’s blog post in response to the original request, and the letter sent to him by the GOP the next day, accusing HIM of “intimidating” their whole party. Go to: http://scholarcitizen.williamcronon.net/2011/03/24/open-records-attack-on-academic-freedom for the first, click on the arrow at the top for the GOP letter, or for that alone go to: >http://scholarcitizen.williamcronon.net/2011/03/25/republican-party-response.

  33. Laurel Fletcher

    This is a bold and despicable move to intimidate one of the nation’s most distinguished historians and thinkers. In doing this the GOP hopes not only to silence Dr. Cronon himself, but make an example of him to any other private citizen who may be considering sharing information or expressing ideas critical of the party’s dealings. They are hoping that citizens will censor themselves rather than speak in the future.

  34. Laurence Jarvik

    Has anyone at AHA even read your own standards of professional conduct? You might try to apply them to your Cronon position: “Furthermore, the different peoples whose past lives we seek to understand held views of their lives that were often very different from each other—and from our own. Doing justice to those views means to some extent trying (never wholly successfully) to see their worlds through their eyes. This is especially true when people in the past disagreed or came into conflict with each other, since any adequate understanding of their world must somehow encompass their disagreements and competing points of view within a broader context. Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present.”

  35. Nicholas Wingered

    Regarding the issue of transparency and full disclosure perhaps Laurence Jarvik should point out that he writes and posts articles for the Heritage Foundation…one of the very organizations originally mentioned in Bill Cronon’s blog posting.

  36. Nigel Pantencuir

    Looks like the jig is up for Cronon. Budding sleuth Laurence Jarvik notes on his website that Cronon refers to his Center for Culture, History, and Environment by its acronym—CHE… as in Che Guevara!!! How is Cronon gonna explain that one…

  37. Laura

    “In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position.”

    I believe that most FOIA laws do not require someone to say why they are making the FOIA request to avoid allowing just this type of veto.

    Please find a more workable policy position or we don’t have a chance of winning this debate.

  38. Robert MacArthur

    Rupert McGill is right on. If you are going to weigh into public discussion, better be prepared for a challenge. And where do all these commentors get off crying about GOP thugs and intimidation; this after weeks of watching union goons work over the Wi legislature and Madison businesses who won’t cave to their demands? C’mon already; isn’t there an old expression about don’t dish it out…..”

  39. Harold Tanner

    Sure…if the law allows the Republicans to ask for the e-mails send on state computers and state e-mail servers, then go ahead and let them have the e-mails…and let them proceed to make fools of themselves—which they certainly will.

  40. Timothy Crawford

    Of course it is an attempt to intimidate. Politics is a blood sport. What I want to know is how do we request copies of the Governor’s emails? Wisconsin Senator’s emails? This is history in the making and somebody should be writing it.

  41. Robert Johnson

    This is a tempest in a teapot. I wish Mr. Cronon would spend his energy on writing another one of his good books instead of whining. Who cares if someone asks for his emails? It should have been anticipated. Anyone I know working in government and discussing current politics will never email me from a governmental email account or talk to me from a government issued cell phone for just this reason. It’s common to do this. I wish historians would worry more about the past than in instigating trouble in the present. I am not a republican but, to be fair to them, he is a well known and influential public employee that has a conflict of interest in this matter. So, as some one else said above, if he starts something, he needs to be ready to play with the big boys.