UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin on Friday released some of the emails requested of a history professor by the state Republican Party but said she is withholding others that "fall within the orbit of academic freedom."
Stephan Thompson, deputy executive director of the state Republican Party, had sought the emails under the state's open records law after professor Bill Cronon wrote an essay on his blog critical of the role the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has played in pushing anti-union legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
The request — evidently aimed at seeing whether Cronon improperly used his state email account for partisan political purposes — sparked widespread opposition among academics and others, who accused the party of abusing the records law to intimidate a campus critic. The party said it was simply exercising its right to inspect a public employee's records and balked at calls to withdraw its request or explain it.
In a statement Friday, Martin reiterated such requests are protected under the state's open records law.
"Neither the request nor the absence of a stated motive seemed particularly unusual," she said. "We frequently receive public records requests with apparently political motives, from both the left and the right, and every position in between."
But in reviewing the emails, Martin said she had to balance the public's right to know with the "zone of privacy" scholars enjoy in their unfettered search for knowledge.
"Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created," she said, adding that doing so could cost the state talented faculty who would leave for universities "where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions."
For all the fuss surrounding the request, the records provided Friday paint a rather dull picture. The overwhelming majority of the 173 pages of correspondence deal with classroom issues and curriculum. The few that mentioned Gov. Scott Walker or collective bargaining included such things as an explanation of the governor's bill from Martin or details of an upcoming rally sent to Cronon and several other faculty members.
In a letter to Thompson, Martin said she was excluding records relating to students or potential students, protected under federal privacy laws; purely personal communications that don't relate to Cronon's job; and communications relating to personnel matters — all common exemptions to the records law.
The response also excludes communications with professional organizations and "intellectual communications among scholars," the release of which, Martin said, could have a chilling effect on the free and open exchange of ideas common at the university.
Even so, Martin's statement said the university had "dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon's records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none."
Republican party officials applauded the release of the records, saying the party has a long history of making open records requests and would continue to exercise that right.
"It is our belief that they handled our records request just like they handle all records requests and unless we learn of evidence to the contrary, we don't plan to appeal" the partial denial of its request, Thompson said.
Cronon, who maintained he always uses his personal email account for anything that could be construed as political rather than scholarly, also praised the university's handling of the records request on his blog, "Scholar as Citizen."
"I could not be more grateful for the thought and care that Biddy Martin and UW-Madison attorneys have put into crafting these responses," he wrote.
Many academics argued the university should not comply at all. UW-Madison political science professor Donald Downs called the request an "unfortunate situation" that put the university in a difficult position. He said he fears public records requests have become tools of "political combat."
"I hope that this incident shows the public how a good law can be abused," Downs said.
State Journal reporter Mary Spicuzza contributed to this report.