William Cronon

As a journalist, my inclination is to support public-records laws that guarantee maximum disclosure. As an ordinary citizen, it’s sometimes unclear to me exactly how far those laws ought to go.

You may have heard that Wisconsin Republicans have filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain private emails written by or to a history professor named William Cronon, whose blog has become a focal point in the battle over the rights of public-employee unions in that state.

Cronon may have to comply because he teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a state university and thus subject to Wisconsin’s strict public-records laws.

One strong argument against disclosure — and one invoked by Cronon himself — is the principle of academic freedom. That may well be how Cronon beats this, yet it strikes me as an easy way out. Why should a professor be exempt while, say, a $50,000-a-year career employee in the highway department is subject to having his private emails revealed in response to a FOIA request?

I should note that this does not affect me personally. Northeastern is a private university. But I don’t see why I should be safe from the long arm of FOIA while my colleagues at UMass are not.

Like Paul Krugman, I make some attempt to use my work email address for professional business and my personal address for everything else. But it’s mainly for my organizational benefit, and I’m not all that painstaking about keeping the two accounts separate.

I’m not sure what the answer is. It seems to me that some officials higher up the food chain ought to be subject to FOIA laws, but that ordinary employees should not. Of course, such officials’ correspondence with ordinary employees would be covered. But I shouldn’t be able to FOIA the email of anyone just because he or she happens to draw a government paycheck.