Would Republican henchmen try to damage the career of a university employee because of something he had written? We know the answer is yes, thanks to the experience of William Cronon, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Republican Party is seeking e-mails from Cronon's university account in reaction to a critical article he wrote about GOP Governor Scott Walker and his efforts to weaken unions. The Cronon story gained considerable traction last week, bringing to national attention the notion of Republican operatives attacking a public employee for political reasons.
That notion is not new here at Legal Schnauzer. It's been almost three years now since I was fired as an editor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), after 19 years on the job, in apparent retaliation for critical posts I had written on this blog about Republicans in our state. For good measure, my wife was "fired" under mysterious circumstances at an insurance company, Infinity Property and Casualty, and we both remain out of work during the Great Bush Recession.
Do Mrs. Schnauzer and I understand what Prof. Cronon is going through? I think we do. Are we surprised that it's happening? No, we are not. Alabama tends to be thought of as a backward state. But when it comes to negative social trends, our state often is ahead of the curve. Long before Scott Walker became a national figure, we saw signs of Alabama Republican attacking university employees, and their loved ones, for expressing progressive or pro-labor views. And it goes beyond just our little household.
Glenn Feldman, a professor of business at UAB, endured a grotesque harassment and discrimination campaign, apparently because his academic specialties of labor economics, labor history, and macroeconomics made him "too pro-union" for the university's taste. Like Cronon, Feldman was a full professor with tenure, but UAB tried to unlawfully fire him on multiple occasions--and he wound up having to fight back via a lawsuit. Court records show that Feldman's case recently was settled. Terms of the settlement are not public, but UAB's online directory shows that he now teaches in the College of Arts and Sciences.
How did Cronon offend Republican sensibilities? He wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times, showing the Walker is breaking with the state's history of sensible bipartisanship. Perhaps most alarming to the GOP was a piece Cronon wrote on his blog titled "Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here.)"
Why are Republicans suddenly attacking public-employee unions around the country? Cronon probably got way too close to the truth when he wrote this:
The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1,000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)
If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote.
Cronon probably pinpointed the low-profile group that is behind the most recent virulent strain of pathological conservatism. For that sin, the GOP has decided, he must pay. It apparently hopes to extract revenge by finding embarrassing tidbits in Cronon's e-mails, perhaps showing that he violated state laws regarding the use of public equipment for partisan political activities.
In a post titled "A Tactic I Hope Republicans Will Rethink: Using the Open Records Law to Intimidate Critics," Cronon summarizes the issue at hand. Why did Stephan Thompson, of the Wisconsin GOP, target Cronon? The professor provides insight:
It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to infer that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues aren’t particularly eager to have a state university professor asking awkward questions about the dealings of state Republicans with the American Legislative Exchange Council. This open records request apparently seemed to Mr. Thompson to be a good way to discourage me from sticking my nose in places he doesn’t think it belongs.
I confess that I’m surprised to find myself in this strange position, since (as I said in my earlier blog post) my professional interest as a historian has always been to research and understand the full spectrum of American political opinion. I often spend as much time defending Republican and conservative points of view to my liberal friends as vice versa. (For what it’s worth, I have never belonged to either party.) But Mr. Thompson obviously read my blog post as an all-out attack on the interests of his party, and his open records request seems designed to give him what he hopes will be ammunition he can use to embarrass, undermine, and ultimately silence me.
One obvious conclusion I draw is that my study guide about the role of ALEC in Wisconsin politics must come pretty close to hitting a bull’s-eye. Why else would the Republican Party of Wisconsin feel the need to single out a lone university professor for such uncomfortable attention?
A similar question could be asked about my situation at UAB, where I was harassed for six months and then fired in spring 2008, long before the current uprising in Wisconsin began. Actually, I don't have to guess why I was terminated. Anita Bonasera, UAB's director of employee relations, admitted to me in a phone conversation (which I tape recorded) that I was targeted because of my blog content about the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. You can hear the audio at the link below, and Bonasera spills the beans at about the 1:40 to 2:00 mark:
Audio: UAB and the Cost of Blogging About the Siegelman Case
Is there any good news in all of this? Well, I've discovered that Republicans aren't real smart thugs. In my case, they left a "digital paper trail" via anonymous threats to my blog, as I outlined in a recent post:
On a post dated February 18, 2008, I received the following anonymous comment:
Nut case yours is comong (sic)
February 18, 2008 3:06 PM
That was on a post about the ties of GOP political consultant Dax Swatek to former Bush U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, so you can pretty quickly narrow down the folks who might have sent the threat.
On a post dated April 14, 2008, I received the following anonymous comment:
Schnauzer does your employer UAB know you blog at work.Maybe they need to find out.
April 15, 2008 6:18 PM
That was in reference to an item I had posted on a Monday, which I had taken as a scheduled vacation day. The time stamp on the post made it look like I was posting on normal work hours. But I was nowhere near work that day. And I never wrote the first word, of that post or any other, on work equipment or time. UAB's own investigation, as outlined at my grievance hearing, showed that.
A simple search of Google records should reveal who sent those e-mails--and they probably came from key figures behind my unlawful termination. Will I ever learn the identities of these people? Well, I have filed a federal lawsuit, which is pending, and you can rest assured that will be part of my discovery requests.
Meanwhile, I suspect the GOP won't manage to harm Prof. Cronon. He is protected by tenure, and as president-elect of the American Historical Association, is a highly respected figure in academia. Plus, it sounds like he hasn't done anything wrong. From the professor's blog:
So let me quickly say that my outrage at Mr. Thompson’s request does not derive from fear—though I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous about the prospect of having the Republican Party and its allies combing through my private and professional life in an effort to hurt or discredit me. I am, after all, a chaired, tenured professor at one of the greatest research universities in the world—an institution that has a proud tradition of defending academic freedom from precisely the kinds of attacks that Mr. Thompson is trying to launch. . . .
But there’s a much more important reason I feel far less fear than anger at Mr. Thompson’s open records request, which is simply this: I haven’t actually done anything wrong.
Ever since moving to Wisconsin from Yale in the early 1990s, I have been careful to maintain a separation between my public @wisc.edu email address and my personal email address. I use the latter for all communications with family members and friends, and I use it too for any activities of mine that might be construed as political rather than scholarly (though the boundaries between these two categories is harder to draw for a scholar of the modern United States than non-scholars might imagine). I have always owned my own computers, because I haven’t wanted to worry about whether my personal and professional emails are mingling on a state-owned machine in ways that would violate Wisconsin’s rules about using state property for personal or political communication.
The irony goes deeper still. As any careful reader of my blog about ALEC will probably have noticed—though I get the feeling that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues may not be such careful readers—I did not raise the questions I did about ALEC from a partisan point of view. Quite the contrary. I tried to write with real respect about the history of the conservative movement in the United States, because I genuinely do respect that movement and believe it has made many important contributions to our political life. Although I do have serious criticisms of the role ALEC has played in our politics, my concerns have to do with threats to core American notions of due process and transparent governance. I worked hard to avoid partisan criticism, enough so that I’m pretty sure many readers to my left thought that I wasn’t nearly critical enough in what I wrote.
My situation is filled with irony, too. Like Cronon, I am not a member of, or an activist for, either party. My political leanings have been progressive over the past 18-20 years, but I have voted for members of both parties. My blog primarily is about corruption in our justice system, not politics--and I've criticized lawyers and judges from both political persuasions.
There is at least one major difference in my situation and that of Prof. Cronon. UAB currently has a corrupt and inept administration, and it appears GOP operatives successfully lobbied weak-kneed officials to fire me. The University of Wisconsin, thankfully, appears to actually be run by ethical people. We've seen no signs that Republicans will get very far in trying to harm Prof. Cronon's career.
In fact, all the Wisconsin GOP has managed to do so far is to bring its under-handed tactics to national attention. Paul Krugman, of The New York Times, tackles the story in a Sunday op-ed piece titled "American Thought Police." Krugman said the effort to go after Cronon's e-mails is the latest example of what has become a common GOP tactic:
If this action strikes you as no big deal, you’re missing the point. The hard right — which these days is more or less synonymous with the Republican Party — has a modus operandi when it comes to scholars expressing views it dislikes: never mind the substance, go for the smear. And that demand for copies of e-mails is obviously motivated by no more than a hope that it will provide something, anything, that can be used to subject Mr. Cronon to the usual treatment.
The Cronon affair, then, is one more indicator of just how reflexively vindictive, how un-American, one of our two great political parties has become.
I'm pleased to see Krugman use the term "un-American," because that's exactly how many modern conservatives behave--even though they are quick to wave the flag and employ patriotic rhetoric.
Like me, Krugman expects Prof. Cronon to survive this skirmish in good shape. But, Krugman says, there is a larger point to be made:
Someone like Mr. Cronon can stand up to the pressure. But less eminent and established researchers won’t just become reluctant to act as concerned citizens, weighing in on current debates; they’ll be deterred from even doing research on topics that might get them in trouble.
What’s at stake here, in other words, is whether we’re going to have an open national discourse in which scholars feel free to go wherever the evidence takes them, and to contribute to public understanding. Republicans, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, are trying to shut that kind of discourse down. It’s up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.
We can start by paying attention. The GOP targeting of public employees has been going on in Alabama for at least three years, and now it has landed in Wisconsin. Don't be surprised if it comes soon to a workplace near you. Take it from someone who knows: Being in the cross hairs of the GOP slime machine is not pleasant.
Prof. Cronon probably is learning something I've known for a while. When the GOP targets you, it has almost nothing to do with facts, ethics, or common sense. If you have written something that causes them to think you are a threat, they will try to harm or ruin your career.
The fact this kind of retaliation is blatantly unlawful is not likely to slow them down one bit.