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Michigan State labor professor says university will comply with FOIA request

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When the Mackinac Center’s requested emails from the labor programs at Wayne State and the University of Michigan, John Beck, Associate Professor and Director of the Labor Education Program at Michigan State University, says his phone started ringing off the hook.

The media, both local and national, wanted to know about Michigan State University’s request from the right wing think tank. Beck, however, didn’t return those calls and e-mails. Why? The university did not receive a request until Thursday.

“I didn’t want to remind them, in case they forgot about us,” Beck told Michigan Messenger with a smile on his face.

Regardless, he says, “We intend to fully comply with the law.” — though the Mackinac Center might be surprised at the response costs. Because the request for e-mails was so broad, it requires the program’s website designer and librarian to respond as well as the professors in the program. As a result, the costs to compile the emails that match the request could be quite expensive.

He said that in addition to the number of people who will have to respond, the targeted words requested as search parameters by the Mackinac Center will also be an issue.

“For instance, they asked for everything with the name ‘Madison,’” Beck says. “Well that means everything that mentions James Madison College is going to get caught up in that.”

Beck also says the requests are going to pull emails from listservs that faculty members participate in.

“The question is: are those sent mails, or received mails?” he says.

The request from the Mackinac Center sought emails that contained certain words — Madison, Wisconsin, Rachel Maddow among others — and many have wondered if the move is designed to intimidate labor advocates into silence.

The Mackinac Center reports it was the victim of death and bomb threats after news of its requests went national.

Some have opined that the request is a violation of academic freedom and of the privacy of professors and that the university need not turn over the information. In fact, the University of Wisconsin recently refused a request by the Wisconsin Republican party for the emails of Professor Bill Cronon, who has been critical of GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union policies.

The university’s response to the request cites privacy rights and the need for scholars to have confidential communications with one another:

  • Personal communications. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in Schill, et al. v. Wisconsin Rapids School District, et al., Case No. 2008AP967-AC (July 16, 2010), allows the university to withhold e-mails containing purely personal communications that do not relate to Professor Cronon’s employment as a faculty member or the official conduct of university business, even though they were sent or received on university e-mail and/or computer systems.
  • Intellectual communications among scholars. Faculty members like Professor Cronon often use e-mail to develop and share their thoughts with one another. The confidentiality of such discussions is vital to scholarship and to the mission of this university. Faculty members must be afforded privacy in these exchanges in order to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas. The consequence for our state of making such communications public will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities that can guarantee them the privacy and confidentiality that is necessary in academia. For these reasons, we have concluded that the public interest in intellectual communications among scholars as reflected in Professor Cronon’s e-mails is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications…

We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.

Whether that line of argument will hold up will likely be determined by a federal court. But Beck says not to expect this kind of response from MSU.

“There is no pressure on us to think twice about what we write,” says Beck. “I am not worried about [academic freedom issues] here.”

He also says that he and his fellow scholars have little to fear from the request, saying, “I can tell you there is no smoking gun here.”

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