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New Right Wing Tactic: Retaliating Against Critics By Seeking Personal Emails

In recent weeks, public workers have been targeted in states across the nation by a corporate-funded, national right wing movement seeking to capitalize on the effects of the economic downturn on state budgets by stripping workers of many hard-won rights, including the right to collectively bargain. Now, the same groups who have campaigned to demonize public workers are deploying a new tactic to intimidate those who dare speak out in support of the middle class: broad and politically motivated Freedom of Information Requests seeking the personal emails of professors and other employees at public academic institutions.

Earlier this month, well-respected University of Wisconsin professor (and president-elect of the American Historical Association) William Cronon wrote an extensive post on his personal blog highlighting the central role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the orchestrated attacks on labor that have taken place in a string of states since the beginning of the legislative session, including Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Tennessee. In retaliation, the Wisconsin Republican Party filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request days later demanding the public release of any of Professor Cronon's office e-mails that mentioned “prominent Republicans or public employee unions.” In a New York Times column on the incident, Paul Krugman described the intent behind the FOIA request accurately – to create “a clear chilling effect” for scholars at any public university who might exercise their right to free speech by criticizing attacks on workers.

If the motivation behind the public records request for Professor Cronon’s personal emails were not clear enough, conservatives in Michigan removed all doubt about by following up with an even more outrageous and speculative demand. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a prominent Michigan right-wing think tank, filed similar FOIA requests this week targeting labor studies centers at three public Michigan universities. As Talking Points Memo reported, these requests were even broader, asking for all emails from any employee that mentioned "Scott Walker; Wisconsin; Madison; Maddow" or "any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin."

One of the targets of the request, a University of Michigan labor studies professor, told a reporter that he found the Mackinac Center’s requests “puzzling.” Yet perhaps they were not. The organizations at the center of both of these separate attempts at intimidation – the Mackinac Center and the American Legislative Exchange Council – are part of what Progressive States Network has previously identified as an extensive, secretive, and well-funded network of pro-corporate think tanks and other right-wing organizations operating in the states that is advancing a broad corporate agenda at the expense of the middle-class. In recent weeks alone, as public attention has increased, reports have emerged on ALEC’s efforts to both suppress the vote and advance measures that harm families’ health security at the state level. Previous reports have highlighted ALEC’s role in the corporate right’s efforts on climate change denial and anti-immigrant bills in the states. And a Mother Jones report recently highlighted the key role played by the Mackinac Center in advancing radical economic measures this legislative session in Michigan, noting that:

“In January, the free-market-loving center published four recommendations, including granting emergency managers the power to override elected officials (such as a mayor or school board member) and toss out union contracts. All four ended up in Snyder's legislation.”

Professor Cronon himself responded to the request for his personal emails by in part expressing his hope that the controversy would bring greater transparency to how ALEC and the right function in the states, writing on his blog that he was “greatly heartened by the thought that an organization that has exercised such extraordinary but almost invisible influence over American political life for the past forty years may finally start to receive more of the scrutiny that its far-reaching activities deserve.” In Wisconsin, Michigan, and around the nation, such new scrutiny seems to be emerging, as both the public and the media begin to ask more questions about the central role that huge corporations and ALEC are playing in advancing state legislation to undermine the job security of workers and destroy the economic security of the middle-class and working families.

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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