NY Times slams GOP’s “petty and medieval” strategy to intimidate academics like Cronon and Mann

GOP inquistors go after critics of ALEC, which is writing anti-climate bills in 16 states funded by Big Oil and Kochs

The latest technique used by conservatives to silence liberal academics is to demand copies of e-mails and other documents. Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli of Virginia tried it last year with a climate-change scientist, and now the Wisconsin Republican Party is doing it to a distinguished historian who dared to criticize the state’s new union-busting law. These demands not only abuse academic freedom, but make the instigators look like petty and medieval inquisitors.

That’s the lede from a powerful NY Times editorial, “A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin.”

Of course, Cuccinelli won’t stop his Inquisition even in the face of a major loss in court, so one doubts that condemnation from a liberal centrist newspaper like the NYT will have an impact on the Wisconsin GOP extremists.

Here’s the rest of the must-read piece:

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 [ALEC], 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.)

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.

Great op-ed, though ‘appear’ is far too mild a word.  They have revealed who they are through their actions, and it’s time they were called out by the highest levels of the Democratic Party.

ALEC getsone third of its support from 10 energy companies, including Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Shell, and Texaco. Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Shell, and Texaco. Energy industry groups such as Koch Industries, American Petroleum Institute, and the American Electric Power Association pay dues of up to $50,000 a year to support industry-friendly legislation for the fossil energy industry.”  SourceWatch notes that “The total from Koch stands at $408,000.”

In particular, ALEC is “literally writing the anti-EPA legislation” for “15  (and now 16) US states.” The “basic resolution opposing the EPA endangerment ruling being adopted in the 15 16 states was drafted by ALEC’s Natural Resources Task Force.”   The “first of the 16 states to pass its ALEC written anti-climate legislation into law is Alabama, which supports the House version of the anti-EPA bill in congress.”

ALEC claims to be “non-partisan,” but that would be like saying the Chamber of Commerce or the American Petroleum Institute is “non-partisan.”   In “Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States: The Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council,” Defenders of Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council explains that ALEC is a “tax-exempt screen for major U.S. corporations and trade associations that use it to influence legislative activities at the state level.”

Given that industry’s anti-climate disinformation campaign evolved from the tobacco industry efforts to attack science — and often involve the same exact people and strategies — you won’t be surprised to learn that “ALEC has a significant history as a tobacco industry ally. It has been an entity through which Philip Morris (PM) launders favors and donations to legislators.”

Nobelist Paul Krugman has a good blog post on the affair, “Academic Intimidation.”  And he just published a column, “American Thought Police,”

Andrew Leonard has a piece at Salon, “Wisconsin’s most dangerous professor,” which begins “I just bought two books by the University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon: Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” and ends hopefully:

By attacking William Cronon, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has insured that his every future utterance will command a mass audience — not just of his fellow historians, who esteem him so highly — but of everyone who cares about the future of this country. If good ideas are ever to drive out bad, both need more exposure. And that’s why I just bought two of Cronon’s books. We can’t shape the future without understanding the past. The potency of Cronon’s current involvement in the hottest political struggle of the day is all the proof I need that my own understanding of how the world works will benefit from more exposure to his work — whether manifested in a blog post, New York Times Op-Ed, or book. What better response could there be to an attack on academic freedom than to spread that academic’s ideas as widely as possible?

Hear!  Hear!

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11 Responses to NY Times slams GOP’s “petty and medieval” strategy to intimidate academics like Cronon and Mann

  1. Jack Bone says:


  2. Cronon notes a point on his own blog (from a couple days ago) that is not getting mentioned in any of the news pieces that I have seen so far: because his university email involves communications with students and the sweeping nature of the Republican requests would almost certainly include more than a few of these, were the university to comply with the FOI request it would be a direct violation of FERPA privacy rules.

    For those who don’t know, FERPA is the federal law that establishes the standards of privacy for students and their records at higher ed institutions. These rules are extremely stringent. For example, in the absence of explicit written permission from the student to do so, no one at the university is allowed to reveal any information about the student’s grades, even to the student’s own parents. (As one might imagine, this can lead to some fairly irrate phone calls.)

    So quite aside from the in principle issue of academic freedom, there is the practical matter that compliance by the university would be a violation of federal law, and expose them to ruinous lawsuits. Nevertheless, by refusing to comply (for whatever reasons) it is almost certainly the case that rightwing propagandists will triumphantly howl that this proves that there is something to hide in those emails (why else won’t they release them?)

    And of course, in a sense this will be true, because there IS something to hide: students’ private and legally protected information.

  3. DavidE says:

    FERPA privacy rules don’t interfere with compliance with the FOI request – they just help to define the limits of “compliance.” What that means is that, prior to making any emails available, UW-M will need to go through the emails that otherwise meet the conditions of the request, and redact or exclude any emails, or portions of emails, whose release would violate FERPA.

    So what happens is: 1) Professor Cronon, or somebody so delegated, searches his emails for the specified keywords; 2) copies of all emails containing the keywords are provided to UW-M’s FOI lawyers; 3) the lawyers redact and exclude as authorized by FERPA or any other laws; 4) whatever is left is provided.

    Now, none of this is to imply that that the Republican request is anything other than an odious attempt to intimidate Professor Cronon. It is what it is, and it’s obvious what it is! But notwithstanding that, it is possible for UW-M to respond to the FOI request without violating either the State Open Records law or FERPA…because FERPA trumps State law, and the courts will not rule otherwise.

    Further…If the Wisconsin Republican Party uses anything in Cronon’s emails to attempt to damage Cronon professionally, then Cronon and UW-M should immediately sue the state party and senior individuals in the party for libel/slander, and seek large damages.

  4. I have seen assertions that there is now software that makes it easy to create a “astroturf” group to make it appear there is more bottom-up support for the climate denial-industry than there actually is. Does anyone know whether this software exists?

  5. Adrian says:

    Thank you for posting this news.

    As a Chicagoan, I’ll never forget the day years ago when my dad handed me Nature’s Metropolis and said, “here, I think you ought to read this.” He was right. It caused me to completely reassess everything I thought I knew about the history of our city and its region. I then promptly acquired and read Changes in the Land.

    Cronon (and other environmental historians) have done for history what environmental economists are doing for economics. When you read his work you begin to think about our relationship to the land in new ways, and to reconsider how our culture ought to be conducting its business.

    Good for Cronon for blogging about ALEC. But his books are more dangerous to the anti-environment right than any op-ed pieces could ever be: they de-mythologize and cast a clear, critical light on exactly those beliefs to which the right clings past all reason.

    His books, for some readers, might be life-changing in the sense that Thoreau’s, Muir’s and Leopold’s are (doubtless the right would want their emails, too, were they writing today).

    I urge everyone who visits Climate Progress to read Cronon’s books. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, which he edited, is also worthwhile. He was featured in the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks. (I think there’s a youtube clip available.)

  6. adelady says:

    DavidE, that sounds all well and good.

    But when an initial – very simple computer sorting – search identifies a few dozen / hundred emails that happen to satisfy one or more of the search terms, there’s a lot of work entailed.

    Every single one of them must be read to ensure that they don’t somehow violate student privacy or the confidentiality obligations of some committee work or pre-publication matters or job references or staff selection or heaven alone knows how many other restrictions.

    Most importantly, exclusion from release must be recorded and justified in terms of specific statutory or other obligations. I was once a public servant administering and enforcing laws. I can assure you that a mere statement that “257 (pick your own number) items ‘cannot’ be disclosed” is inadequate.

    Such a number would, at the very least, have to be broken down by category. And the university’s lawyers would have to be able to state with confidence that someone competent made a valid judgment about each and every one of those excluded items.

    If nothing else, this is a clear sign of how perfectly innocuous or otherwise good laws can be used to harass people.

  7. Calamity Jean says:

    Professor Cronon’s predicament reminds me of the SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) tecnique. At least part of the point is to be an expensive pain in the neck.

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    Re Donald A Brown

    Denier-bots live! Why are online comments’ sections over-run by the anti-science, pro-pollution crowd?

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Calamity Jane #7 has it, but ought, I think, add vicious intimidation as well. SWLAPPs, like these fishing expeditions, threaten careers and income, a very real stress.It’s all adding up, over there and here, to the Right morphing, as predicted, into outright neo-fascist authoritarianism. I saw an article the other day by Robert Reich, noting that the bufocrats were planning to remove a mural dedicated to labour and workers from a state government office in Maine (if I remember correctly) because it did not suit their intense class hatred, which they euphemised as ‘pro-business attitude’. And then there is a provision sneakily inserted by Federal Republican bufocrats into legislation which would remove Food Stamp rights from all the members of a family if one of them went on strike. Collective punishment comes to ‘the Homeland’! The Right has always been repellent, dedicated to hatred of others, unlimited greed, poverty, wealth and inequality, but, under the pressure of economic collapse, geo-political challenge from China and the other rising powers and ever more undeniable ecological crisis, they are going stark raving mad and growing increasingly hate-driven and punitive. This all, of course, makes action on the ecological catastrophe impossible, and Obama’s ‘mystifying’ acquiescence is crucial to the Right’s success.

  10. Raoul says:

    There was in the multipurpose text editor Emacs a function to automatically add to every text (especially emails) some randomly chosen keywords which would make one seem to engage in subversive activities, purposely to fool and submerge Echelon, the signals intelligence collection and analysis program.

    Maybe it’s time for the climate scientists to do the same, and insert into their work emails “climate garbage” keywords.

    I’ll begin right now!

    EPA Inhofe hockey stick world government

  11. Snapple says:

    I didn’t vote for Obama, but now I wish I had. Hopefully, Obama’s “‘mystifying’ acquiescence” is really just a lawyer and a politician playing it cool.

    Raoul, I think your suggestion of acting like a subversive is childish. The US government agencies support climate scientists. The CIA has a Center for the Study of Climate Change and National Security. They give security clearances to climate scientists. The denialists may step on someone’s toes and end up slipping on a really big bannanna peel.

    Why would you suggest that activists act in a way that gives aid and comfort to the denialist propaganda that the scientists are subversives who are trying to trick people?

    The US government has a history of busting disinformation campaigns that impune the integrity of U.S. scientists.

    The denialists are the subversives, and they may get their just desserts, eventually. They have hung their case on the criminal act of hacking the CRU. The British or the US may arrest someone for the hacked emails. Someone may make an admission. The MET office is part of the British military, and they work with the CRU.

    Of course, what do I know? I was one of those useful idiots who believed they would find Colin Powell’s WMD in Iraq. Still, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    Sometimes, the operatives and collaborators who defame our scientists end up outing themselves. For example, the Russian Newspaper Izvestia wrote (March 19, 1992):

    “The head of the Foreign Intelligence Service [KGB General Yevgeni Primakov] made a number of really sensational announcements. He mentioned the well-known articles printed a few years ago in our central newspapers about AIDS supposedly originating from secret Pentagon laboratories. According to Yevgeni Primakov, the articles exposing the U.S. scientists’ ‘crafty’ plot against mankind were fabricated in KGB offices.”

    The KGB stooge-scientists and conspiracists who supported this campaign were thrown right under the bus.