A modest proposal

12 April 2011

Free speech can sometimes be a hard thing to stand up for (witness the Terry Jones and Fred Phelps groups), and likewise the concept of Freedom of Information. In Wisconsin, state Republicans are using the latter to get access to all the email of a prominent University of Wisconsin professor, William Cronon (who has criticized efforts to strip state workers of the right to join unions), looking for times when he crossed the line from state employee to political advocate using his university email account. In Michigan, Republicans have submitted FOIA requests for vast swaths of faculty email from targeted departments at Wayne State, the U. of Michigan, and Michigan State. There, they’ve narrowed their search down by looking only for certain keywords, including:

  • Scott Walker
  • Madison
  • Wisconsin
  • Rachel Maddow (?!?)

So here’s my proposal: I suggest all of us put the term Scott Walker into every single one of our university emails. Every time we schedule a meeting by email, stick “Scott Walker” in the middle, no matter how nonsensical. Every time we grant a student an extension by email, Scott Walker. Every time we fill out a form and submit it via email to some university office, Scott Walker. I suggest we request of our students that if they’re going to send an effusive email to us thanking us for the 15 letters of recommendation we wrote on their behalf, they ought to mention Scott Walker.

I don’t doubt that these FOIA requests amount to an attempt to embarrass Bill Cronon in Wisconsin and faculty in Michigan. I also don’t doubt that this is acceptable and legal under the idea of Freedom of Information, which is intended as a value-neutral attempt to make government more transparent. I just think that if people try to embarrass university faculty — truly one of the least radical and most fearful groups of individuals in the US today — those activists ought to have to wade through an awful lot of the quotidian work we do every single day on behalf of universities and students. This work is burdensome, generous, and utterly apolitical. If activists seek to humiliate faculty, they ought to have to see our labor in its entirety.