I am William Cronon, and so are you if you teach at a public instititution
via Tenured Radical, who reports on the chilling case of University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon whose post regarding the role of conservative advocacy groups in formulating anti-union legislation at his new blog, Scholar as Citizen, have gotten him in hot water from the state’s Republican leaders. The GOP in that state has requested all copies of Cronon’s emails sent from his university account under the state’s open records law.
As a guide to other academics — especially those at public institutions — TR has put together what she calls “the Walker Rules of Electronic Communication and Knowledge (WRECK):
- Your university email account belongs to the university. While Bill Cronon is being persecuted by a bunch of right wing Republicans determined to reduce the American working class to pre-industrial conditions, technically your employer can enter your email account whenever it chooses. This means that we should all be careful what we say when we write from, or to, an edu address. In fact, it isn’t such a terrible idea to add your gmail or yahoo account to the signature line of your university account requesting that all personal communication be sent there.
- People (including students) who work in IT can get access to your university email through the web server whenever they want to. They shouldn’t, and they probably don’t, but they are capable of it. Don’t put anything in an email that you would not want circulated. This includes personal matters (sex), conflict with colleagues, and correspondence about personnel cases that reveals any information that you, the department, the referees, or the candidate might consider private.
- The computer you are assigned by the university belongs to the university, and they can search it at any time. They can also search your office without a warrant. According to FindLaw, unless you are covered by a state law or a union contract that prohibits such searches, “Employers can usually search an employee’s workspace, including their desk, office or lockers. The workspace technically belongs to the employer, and courts have found that employees do not have an expectation of privacy in these areas. This is also the case for computers. Since the computers and networking equipment typically belong to the employer, the employer is generally entitled to monitor the use of the computer. This includes searching for files saved to the computer itself, as well as monitoring an employee’s actions while using the computer (eg, while surfing the internet).” Does this mean that we should all be thinking about buying a home computer for all activities we wish to ensure privacy for — downloading pornography, getting divorced, blogging? Maybe. And technically, the university could prohibit you from blogging on the computer they provide, although arguably this would be an infringement of academic freedom.
- You can’t be sure you have erased something from a computer or a server. In fact, according to Daniel Engber of Slate, you can be pretty sure that you can’t erase anything permanently, even if you use a utility like Evidence Eliminator. And even if you could, those emails that you sent are now on someone else’s computer, someone else’s server, and so on. They are retrievable.
- The Republican Party is owned and operated by vicious thugs who abuse their power to make us all into corporate servants and lackeys for capitalist special interests. This has nothing to do with computers: I thought I would just throw this in. But we are reminded that there is a long history for this sort of activity in the United States: in the late 1830s, for example, the southern slaveocracy pushed for national legislation to censor abolitionist literature. When they didn’t get it, beginning with South Carolina, they passed state laws that allowed local officials to seize these materials and open the mail of private citizens. The parallel is obvious, isn’t? Freedom to have absolute power over labor > constitutional right to free speech. It’s a good thing the Grimke sisters didn’t have an email account.”
Now, some other mischief-makers in the academic blogosphere have put together a plan to get back at the Wisconsin GOP by suggesting we all forward all sent mail to Governor Scott Walker (that’s email@example.com), Mark Jefferson (that’s firstname.lastname@example.org) and GOP State Party Chairman Brad Courtney (that’s State.Chairman@Wisgop.info). To contact other members of the state party leadership, go here for their addresses.