Will GOP scrutiny change the way professors use eMail?

UW released some of Cronon's eMail messages after a university review.

Professors and researchers might shy away from using their university-issued eMail accounts to discuss thorny political issues, turning instead to personal eMail, after a University of Wisconsin (UW) professor’s electronic exchanges were made public in accordance with a request from the state’s Republican Party.

UW history professor William Cronon came under scrutiny last month during Wisconsin lawmakers’ battle over legislation that would severely curb labor unions’ ability to collectively bargain. Cronon wrote a post for his blog, Scholar as Citizen, that questioned the origins of the union-busting bill.

Cronon also wrote a New York Times opinion piece critical of the Republican-backed legislation. Using Wisconsin’s Open Documents Law, conservative groups filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking eMail messages from Cronon’s UW account that mentioned key words in the labor union political fight, including “recall,” “collective bargaining,” “union,” and “rally.”

UW Chancellor Biddy Martin said in an April 1 statement that the school had handed over an undisclosed number of Cronon’s eMail messages in accordance with state law.

Messages released by the university didn’t include “what we consider to be the private eMail exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it,” Martin said, adding that a university review of Cronon’s eMail messages revealed no “partisan political activity” using school resources.

Even if Cronon’s FOIA-ed eMail messages show no wrongdoing by the Rhodes Scholar, faculty members on campuses nationwide said the Wisconsin controversy could make professors think twice before sending eMail to a colleague that might be construed as political in nature.

A larger question is whether the GOP’s actions might have a chilling effect on academic freedom, if researchers shy away from tackling politically sensitive topics as a result of these probes.