Is the Demand for Cronon’s E-mails a Threat to Academic Freedom?
Peter Wood says no in a post at the Chronicle’s Innovations blog. He acknowledges that this is an act of political reprisal, and that “professors who sow the political wind reap the political whirlwind.” In that sense, his opinion parallels that of Mitchell Langbert quoted by Candace, that “he [Cronon] chose to involve himself in politics and the GOP’s response is a normal political tactic.”
What is more troubling is the reaction by the AAUP and the AHA, denouncing the open-records request as an assault on academic freedom. Their reaction, and that of many others, illustrates the importance of knowing what academic freedom really is — what it does and does not protect. It does protect Cronon’s taking a partisan political stand on his personal blog and in the New York Times. It does not protect him from a legitimate legal inquiry into his use of state property.
If Professor Cronon were in jeopardy of losing his job for what he wrote on his personal blog or published in the Times, I would agree with the AAUP and the AHA. Academic freedom in that case would be at risk. He faces no such risk. Separating the ostensible motive of the Wisconsin Republican Party (i.e. political reprisal for his public writings) from its chosen tactic (the Open Records Law request) may seem a fine distinction, but it is a necessary one. It’s necessary because the doctrine of academic freedom will lose legitimacy if it is allowed to become an excuse for breaking the law.
So while the Wisconsin Republican party would have done better to have responded to Professor Cronon’s arguments directly rather than going after his e-mails, its action does not jeopardize academic freedom, rightly understood.