Rifling your inbox

    If you don’t like what some professor says or writes, or if you’re just curious, should you be able to read all his e-mails?

    That might sound crazy, but if you’ve followed events in Wisconsin over the last week, you’ll see the idea is all too real.

    An official from the state Republican party, offended by the opinions of University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon, filed a public records request for the prof’s email.

    This stems from the controversy over GOP Governor Scott Walker’s effort to strip public employee unions of many collective bargaining rights. As you can read in this piece by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Don Walker, Republican party deputy executive director Stephan Thompson asked for e-mails from Cronon’s state e-mail account with the words “Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union,” and many others.

    The move was denounced in a New York Times piece by Paul Krugman, who called the Republicans’ response to Cronon’s criticism “reflexively vindictive, un-American,” and a threat to academic freedom.

    I agree with him on all counts, but it’s been interesting to see open records advocates defend the request, saying the rules permit citizens to get these records, no matter what their motives are. The people’s business has to be transparent, they say, and it doesn’t matter why the Republicans want the emails. They get them.

    On Friday the University released some of Cronon’s emails, but withheld some, explaining that they involved personal matters or were “private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it.”

    The Republicans could go to court to get the rest of Cronon’s email, but don’t appear inclined to at the moment.

    The scary thing to me is that the university treated the request as a legitimate public records inquiry at all. I think the whole episode calls for a re-thinking of the way state right to know laws are crafted.

    The principle of these laws is that citizens have a right to know how public money is spent, and how public policy is made. It seems an enormous reach to think that means you can rifle the drawers of anybody who works for a state-funded university.

    I would go further and suggest that obtaining thousands of emails from government officials who do make laws and policies may be too intrusive. The truth is that for government to be effective, public officials sometimes have to have a private communication with other public officials.

    When President Obama negotiates with Congressional Republicans over the budget or health care legislation, he and his staff have to be able to float ideas that might prove controversial.

    A cabinet secretary who wants to improve her department’s operations ought to be able to ask her staff for out-of-the-box ideas, without worrying that every piece of paper or email they exchange will be someday be used to embarrass them.

    I don’t know how you craft right to know laws that strike the right balance, but there is a balance to be struck.

    I went to Pennsylvania’s recently re-drawn right to know law and noted that among the state-related institutions whose records were subject to its provisions are Temple University, The University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, and Lincoln University.

    A among the records exempt from the Pennsylvania law are “unpublished lecture notes, unpublished manuscripts, unpublished articles, creative works in progress, research-related material and scholarly correspondence of a community college or an institution of the State System of Higher Education or a faculty member, staff employee, guest speaker or student thereof.”

    Does that include a teacher’s email?

    I managed to track down Terry Mutchler, director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, who was at an airport between flights. She’s a former journalist, a lawyer, and a passionate but level-headed advocate for government transparency.

    She said that in general, emails are considered public records. But she wasn’t sure whether a professor’s emails at a state-funded university here would be obtainable under Pennsylvania’s law.

    “We’ve never had a case on that here,” she said. She promised to give it further thought, look at some cases and get back to me.

    I’ll let you know what she says. Let me know what you think.

    UPDATE: It turns out that emails from the four institutions mentioned above probably aren’t obtainable under the Pennsylvania law.  They are defined as “state-related institutions,” and they have more limited reporting requirements. Thanks to Chris Harper, whose comment below sent me back to the law for closer look.

    However, it appears the 14 universities that are part of the state system of higher education are subject to the law, and Mutchler says professors’ emails at those institutions can be the subject of an public records request. More on that in a coming post.

    You can find a list of of the state system universities here.

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