Narayan Mahon for The New York TimesA conservative research group in Michigan has issued a far-reaching public records request to the labor studies departments at three public universities in the state, seeking any e-mails involving the Wisconsin labor turmoil.
William Cronon, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The group, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, declined to explain why it was making the Freedom of Information Act request for material from professors at the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State University. But several professors who received the records request, which was first reported by Talking Points Memo on Tuesday, said it appeared to be an attempt to intimidate or embarrass professors who are sympathetic to organized labor.This records request, which was filed Friday, comes several days after the Republican Party of Wisconsin made a records request to a prominent University of Wisconsin history professor, William Cronon, who had severely criticized the state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, over his push for legislation to weaken public-sector unions.
The Mackinac Center, which describes itself as a nonpartisan research and educational institution and receives money from numerous conservative foundations, asked the three universities’ labor studies faculty members for any e-mails mentioning “Scott Walker,” “Madison,” “Wisconsin” or “Rachel Maddow,” the liberal talk show host on MSNBC.
Greg Scholtz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors, said: “We think all this will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”
Roland Zullo, a labor studies professor at the University of Michigan, said he found the center’s request “puzzling.” “It seems an odd request for an institution that claims to be nonpartisan,” he said.
Michael D. Jahr, the Mackinac Center’s vice president for communications, declined to discuss the records request. Ken Braun, managing editor of the center’s political newsletter, declined to give the reason for it. He said the newsletter, Michigan Capital Confidential, had made the request and often makes such public records requests.
“As a general policy, we don’t discuss our FOIAs until we write about them,” Mr. Braun said. He said the records request could have been much broader but was limited to a handful of topics at just the labor studies departments, instead of also including history and political science departments.
Mr. Braun said the center’s request was in no way coordinated with the Wisconsin Republican Party’s FOIA request to Professor Cronon.
After one recent records request, the center reported that taxpayers were paying the salary of an elementary school teacher even though she was released from her teaching duties to work 100 percent on union issues.
Marick Masters, the director of labor studies at Wayne State, said he had nothing to hide. “This looks like an attempt to embarrass us,” he said. “I haven’t engaged in any partisan activities here. I think they’re probably interested in seeing the extent to which labor studies centers in the state have helped orchestrate the protests in Madison.”
Professor Cronon, who describes himself as a political independent, said he was angry about what he called an attempt at harassment. He said that he had never engaged in any nonscholarly political work on university computers or time, which is prohibited, but that he was still concerned about the release of any e-mails. The Republican Party requested e-mails mentioning several politically related words, including Mr. Walker and several legislators.
“There is an academic freedom issue here,” Mr. Cronon said.
Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, declined to explain why the records request was made. He criticized Professor Cronon for questioning the party’s motives. “I find this troubling,” he said. “Like anyone else filing a public records request, I don’t have to give a reason.”