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Freedom to snoop

Posted: April 8, 2011 2:31 p.m.
Updated: April 11, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Conservatives express shock and horror over political correctness, which they roughly define as the Orwellian suppression of any frank discussion about issues that liberals hold dear. But conservatives practice their own PC, too. "Freedom fries," anyone?

Doublespeak? What else describes the reasoning of activists who oppose a proposed "Ground Zero mosque" -- that, by the way, would neither be a mosque nor at Ground Zero -- in the name of "protecting our religious freedoms?"

Thought police? If you want to have a future in today's Republican circles, thou shalt not scoff in public at the power of talk show star Rush Limbaugh or the next day thou shalt find thyself apologetically groveling at his mighty throne.

Newspeak? Don't even think of referring to tea party supporters as "teabaggers," even when they've got teabags dangling from their hats.

But, amusing as such examples might be, the rise of right-wing PC takes on an aroma of real danger in a current case of what I call Wisconsin Doublethink: The use of state versions of the Freedom of Information Act to suppress information that the right doesn't like.

When state lawmakers passed their own versions of the federal FOIA to widen public access to government records, they probably did not have the personal mail of state university professors on their minds. But welcome to the new academic worlds of Wisconsin and Michigan, where faculty emails have been sucked into both state's heated battles over the bargaining rights of public workers.

Wisconsin's Republican Party filed an FOIA request for the email of William Cronon, a widely respected professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The filing came on March 17, two days after Cronon posted on his blog, which is not affiliated with the university, a "study guide" to conservative think tanks headlined "Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here)."

Two days later, Cronon says, the post received 500,000 hits. He also received an open-records request filed by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin for emails on his state email account pertaining to a list comprised mostly of state lawmakers and union leaders.

A few days later, Michigan's Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank, issued a broad public records request to labor studies centers at Wayne State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. The request seeks any emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin -- including oddly the surname of liberal MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow -- an inclusion that Maddow says caught her completely by surprise. She wasn't alone.

Why is the Mackinac Center interested in professors' TV viewing habits? Their request doesn't say. The right of the public to see public records is viewed as so fundamental under FOIA provisions that the filers don't have to say why they want to see the files.

The professors and their allies are charging that the ideologically motivated email probes amount to an ugly new version of an old conservative PC called "McCarthyism." Not quite, in my view, although I think you can smell it from here.

The late Sen. Joe McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, was not known to respect such niceties as evidence and due process like the FOIA filers do. Whatever else looks politically fishy, the filers do appear to be making a good-faith effort to find real evidence to back up their suspicions.

The Wisconsin and Michigan requests do appear to be shopping for email evidence that would catch professors in the act of politicking over the collective bargaining rights debate in Wisconsin. That would be illegal, although in this case it also seems far-fetched.

When speech and academic freedoms are at stake, courts usually have given wide latitude to professors and others who advocate for certain issues without actively campaigning for specific candidates or ballot issues.

While this FOIA campaign might intimidate professors, it is just as likely to enrage them and their many supporters, as well as voters. That's the risk you take when you overreach in your pursuit of information. Eventually the voters will decide if what's conservatively correct leads to better government.

Yet if there is anything that both sides of this dispute support, as do I, it is the value of transparency on which public disclosure laws are grounded. Even if requests are abused sometimes, the public gains from more transparency, not less.

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