Expectation of privacy and free speech breached in Wisconsin

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April 1, 2011

When the United States Constitution was written over two hundred years ago, the founders of our country did not have the technology we have today, but they did have the ideology of a right to privacy; they had the expectation of free speech, meaning that anyone who spoke out against the government should be protected by law. This commonality and continuity between the founders’ prophetic document and what Americans expect and believe today is what makes this country great. This is why I was shocked last week when the Wisconsin GOP requested emails from William Cronon, a professor who spoke against their government. While many states, including Wisconsin, have policies regarding public employees’ rights to privacy, including the right to seize communications if used for partisan politics, the move to review a professors’ emails in response to an op-ed is a severe use of the open records law in Madison. As Paul Krugman explains,

So we don’t need to worry about Mr. Cronon — but we should worry a lot about the wider effect of attacks like the one he’s facing. Legally, Republicans may be within their rights: Wisconsin’s open records law provides public access to e-mails of government employees, although the law was clearly intended to apply to state officials, not university professors. But there’s a clear chilling effect when scholars know that they may face witch hunts whenever they say things the G.O.P. doesn’t like.

This breach of privacy is nothing new in these PATRIOT Act days. However, what is new is the blatant political backlash being put out by a political group for political gain. The fact that one cannot speak out or write about what they think without being persecuted for their politics, takes the privacy and free speech arguments to a new level—both nationally and statewide. As The New Yorker reports,

Taken literally, this is a politically motivated fishing expedition: an effort to show that Cronon has engaged in political activity using a state university e-mail. In fact, though, it’s something nastier and more wide-ranging: an effort to intimidate Cronon, and any other state employee, by making clear that it can be dangerous to take a position that Republicans don’t like on the issues of the day. After all, Cronon’s mails, like those of most professors, include materials meant to be confidential: messages to and about students or colleagues. The only reason to compromise the protection these materials enjoy would be evidence of wrongdoing on his part, and there is none.