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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