A recent Freedom of Information Act request from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy solicited e-mails regarding the union dispute in Wisconsin from professors at three public universities in Michigan. Filed last week, the non-profit, nonpartisan research institute’s request seeks faculty e-mails from the labor departments at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University that contain the words “Wisconsin,” “Scott Walker” or “Maddow.” Though the state’s sunshine laws technically give the organization the right to ask for the messages, the universities involved shouldn’t feel pressured to release faculty e-mails. The Mackinac Center’s request is simply a scare tactic that aims to intimidate pro-labor professors and suppress academic freedom.
This isn’t the first time FOIA has been used to intimidate and stifle criticism. On March 17, the Wisconsin Republican Party demanded the release of e-mails from University of Wisconsin-Madison Prof. William Cronon, an open critic of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Though the GOP claimed the request was filed in order to determine whether or not Cronon had violated a Wisconsin law that stipulates state-funded resources — like work e-mail — cannot be used for political purposes, it’s clear that Wisconsin’s GOP was using bureaucratic means to intimidate those who oppose its actions.
Now the political witch-hunt has crossed Michigan’s borders. While the Mackinac Center claims that the call for faculty e-mail is simply for apolitical analysis, the fact that the think tank only solicited e-mails from the three universities’ labor departments suggests there may be more political motives behind the request. If the organization wanted an unbiased analysis of professors’ responses to the labor protests in Wisconsin, it could have requested information from a number of other departments that may address the dispute. Only requesting the e-mails from the labor departments suggests that the center aims to intimidate and suppress the voice of one group — labor.
The FOIA request infringes on something more important than e-mail privacy: academic freedom. While it may not be appropriate for university staff members to openly engage in partisan politics, expressing judgments on the actions of the government via personal e-mails is well within their rights. Professors and students alike should be able to question policymakers even if they’re affiliated with a public university.
The issue of whether certain staff members violated policies by sending personal, political e-mails from their university e-mail accounts is the business of the universities, not the Mackinac Center. The think tank is trying to expose which staff members at which universities are pro-labor in order to present skewed information about the political leanings of different universities. The University of Michigan has yet to respond to the FOIA request, and the administration have a right to do what they can to protect the privacy of their employees.
While the release of information under FOIA is an important tool in making public information public, sifting through the e-mails of university staff members is an absurd measure. The Mackinac Center’s request is senseless and an attempt to intimidate and stifle dissenting opinions.