In recent weeks, we have seen the use of open records requests for malicious and political purposes. When used correctly, such requests can provide the public with a much-needed tool to scrutinize government and public officials. When used irresponsibly or for purposes other than transparency, public records requests can threaten the freedom of public workers.
Public records requests have recently been used irresponsibly by conservatives entrenched in the ongoing union conflicts throughout the nation, most notably in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Republicans filed an open records request for emails of University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon. The professor, a vocal critic of the anti-union measures advocated by the Wisconsin GOP, was smacked with an open records request for emails sent from his university email account containing the words “Republican, Scott Walker (the governor of Wisconsin), recall, collective bargaining, rally, union” as well as the names of various state and union leaders.
Freedom of Information Act fever seems to be contagious up north, as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Michigan, also filed open records requests last week for the emails of several state university professors specializing in labor relations. The open records request calls for emails containing the terms “Scott Walker,” “Wisconsin,” “Madison,” “Maddow” (presumably referring to liberal television personality Rachel Maddow) and any other emails that mention the debate in Wisconsin over collective bargaining rights, according to the liberal-leaning news blog Talking Points Memo.
Wisconsin Republicans and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy both argue they are investigating whether the professors violated laws that prohibit the use of state resources, such as their university email account, for political advocacy.
To be clear, we completely support open records laws, and we encourage all involved to provide complete and accurate materials adhering to the requests. Open records laws are fundamental to how any investigative body, be it academic, journalistic or political, can conduct its work. In journalism, open records laws enable us to scrutinize otherwise unobtainable information such as administrator discussions about student involvement and student government spending.
Both the Wisconsin and Michigan records requests are shameful and irresponsible abuses of a tool intended to provide governmental scrutiny, not political retribution.
It is precisely because we place a such a premium on open records laws that we are appalled by their malicious use in Wisconsin and Michigan. Records requests should be used to gather facts and information, not to publicly identify the political views of state employees.
Furthermore, while these academics are technically state employees, thus subject to the same transparency laws as elected officials, they should not be held to the same standards. They are not public servants elected by the people or even university administrators responsible for handling tax dollars. They are academics who are only open to such scrutiny because they happen to work at an institution partially funded by the state.
Say the records requests reveal Cronon and the other professors mentioned Scott Walker, Wisconsin and Rachel Maddow in emails to colleagues — after all, what kind of history or labor scholar wouldn’t discuss one of the most prominent labor disputes in recent history with other academics? Then what? Who gets to determine whether these discussions amount to advocacy and campaigning? Our guess is the Wisconsin Republican Party and Mackinac Center for Public Policy will volunteer.
These requests are an irresponsible use of a valuable tool. If we were inclined, The Daily Texan could request all emails containing the word “Bevo” from President William Powers, Jr.’s official email account, but we realize doing so would be a violation of his and Bevo’s privacy and not of public concern.