Michigan and Wisconsin professors now targets of politicized FOIA requests

A libertarian think tank is filing Freedom Of Information Act paperwork to see the .edu emails of professors at state universities in WI and MI, to find out if they’d been engaging in political activities on the state dime. The FOIA request asks for all emails matching the following search criteria:

“Scott Walker”; “Wisconsin”; “Madison”; “Maddow”; Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.

Says one Michigan professor:

“It sounds like they’re trying to catch us advocating for the recall or the election of a politician,” Zullo said. “Because we’re not supposed to do that, we’re not supposed to use our University of Michigan resources for something like that.”

Well, sure.

The problem is not so much with the FOIA requests themselves, as Jack Shafer argues here, though I do think this is sort of a weird use of newish technology. After all, I’m sure in 1968 there were many, many professors at state universities using state-provided telephones to advocate for all sorts of political change, but because phone calls (usually) leave no record, it was a non-issue.

But surely there’s something problematic about any approach to public corruption law that chills free political speech in state universities, even in the name of keeping state resources nonpolitical. Can you do a FOIA request to find out if professors have Barack Obama posters in their state-provided offices? Can the Young Republicans invite presidential candidates to speak in state-provided lecture halls? If students put on a play at the state-provided campus theater, and that play is entitled, “Impeach Scott Walker Because He Is A Union-Busting Douchebag,” is that really a matter of corruption, of the kind FOIA is intended to uncover? What if faculty members take part in the play? And — perhaps most critically — can the university press, with funds provided by the public, print an academic book about the 2011 political controversies in Wisconsin that expresses any opinion whatsoever? It is not to be imagined that an academic book exists, at least in the fields of political science, history, or law, which does not carry some political charge. Political speech is bound up in the function of the university.

Moreover, the legal line between two friends mouthing off in interdepartmental emails (“Scott Walker is a dick. People should recall that guy.”) and actual advocacy is probably difficult to determine.

I’d like to think no one will lose his job over this: universities tend to be notoriously stubborn about protecting the academic freedom of their members. On the other hand, the political haymaking alone may be the reason for the whole exercise. New talking point: “State universities are hives of left-wing political organizing!”

(“And in related news, computer science departments tend to be full of arch-libertarians and people who read Douglas Adams books!”)

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