Ethics and Public Information in Wisconsin

The Republican Party of Wisconsin is seeking the email records of William Cronon, a respected historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, after Cronon wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times concerning the efforts by the Republicans in Wisconsin to cripple the rights of public workers. On March 15 Cronon also began a blog called Scholar as Citizen, presenting a study guide for understanding these efforts to cripple public unions.

The request by the Republican Party is made under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law. Whether the Republicans have a right to the emails they are requesting will have to be sorted out, but it is worth considering what purpose the Republicans may have in obtaining the information they are seeking. While there are few public information laws that require that people making requests for information have a good reason for doing so, in most cases the purposes of such laws are to make public the workings of government and provide citizens with information on how government officials make the decisions they make.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin is really stretching the purpose of the Open Records Law by claiming that Cronon, a professor, is “a public official,” especially when it wrote recently: “Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner.”¬†What decisions has Cronon made as “a public official” that require illumination through the release of information? Cronon has been quite open in presenting his opinions–arguably more open than the current governor of the state was about his plans for public unions when he was running for governor. And Cronon has done this on a blog not connected to the University of Wisconsin. To his credit he has used his knowledge as a historian to analyze current events.

Rather than contest the opinions and the information Cronon has presented, the Republican Party appears determined to try to discredit him. As such, the party, which clearly has a strong interest in supporting the efforts of the governor to destroy public-worker unions, is using the Public Records Law in a reprehensible way, designed only to bully and to fight a credible voice speaking out against the actions of state officials. Regardless of whether the party has a right to the information, the request is a distortion of the real purpose for public information. If the Republican Party can present arguments to counter those presented by the Cronon they should do so. Misusing the Open Records Law is not only reprehensible but unethical.

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