Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times reported on March 29 that the Mackinac Center had filed FOIA requests for the work e-mails of professors at three public universities in Michigan: Michigan State, Wayne State, and the University of Michigan. In searching for mentions in the e-mails of such terms as “labor unions” and “Scott Walker,” the conservative–though nominally non-partisan–think tank seems to be furthering an effort to embarrass academic figures by unmasking their ties to, or affinity for, the labor movement.
These FOIA requests follow only shortly after the Republican Party in Wisconsin issued similar demands for the emails of University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon — a move discussed at great length recently by Paul Krugman. There is little doubt that state university professors, as public employees, are technically subject to such freedom of information requests. Nonetheless, as Krugman noted, these incidents represent a disturbing assault on academic freedom and a potential threat to the independent political culture of public universities which often thrives even in the heart of otherwise much more conservative states.