In a recent law journal article, Ryan Fairchild helpfully compares the freedom of information laws of all 50 states to see how they might govern requests for material from public universities. He finds that Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have the best laws in place.
[Ryan C. Fairchild. “Giving Away the Playbook: How North Carolina’s Public Records Law Can Be Used to Harass, Intimidate, and Spy.” North Carolina Law Review 91 (2013): 2117–2178. h/t Rebecca Tushnet]
The New York Times obtained “hundreds of emails and other documents” about public university professors in Texas and Illinois through Freedom of Information requests.
[Kocieniewski, David. “Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward.” New York Times, December 27, 2013. h/t Rebecca Tushnet]
Over the past three years, various activists have filed public records or freedom of information requests for the e-mail of professors at public universities. In March 2011, the Republican Party of Wisconsin requested some of the e-mails of Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy asked for similar e-mails sent among faculty and staff at public universities in Michigan. Then the American Tradition Institute sought the e-mail correspondence of Michael Mann, formerly of the University of Virginia.
At the time, the tactic was new, and experts speculated on the potential effects on academic freedom. However, those ideas remained largely speculative. The University of Wisconsin withheld messages sent to and from Cronon if they were “records related to professional organizations” or “intellectual communications among scholars.” And a Virginia court held that Mann’s e-mails were exempt from disclosure based on Virginia’s exclusion of “Data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher education…in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues.
These decisions limited the impact of the requests. But two more recent cases in states with less nuanced public records laws show how little privacy faculty at public universities may expect.
In an interview marking his ascendancy to the AHA presidency, William Cronon tells the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I now use my university e-mail address only for communicating with students and for doing administrative work for the university.”
Sarah Palin was criticized for allegedly conducing public business on a private, Yahoo! account. Could Cronon face similar challenges? And how often are Bill Cronon and Sarah Palin mentioned in the same paragraph?