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. For 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.