More than a million people teach at colleges and universities in the United States, but only one faces a Republican demand for his e-mails: William Cronon, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Cronon is a brilliant historian. He’s the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. He’s president-elect of the American Historical Association. His books on environmental history have won the biggest awards a historian can receive.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin last week filed an open records request demanding access to any e-mails Cronon sent or received since Jan. 1 containing the search terms “Republican,” “collective bargaining,” “rally,” “union” or the names of eight Republicans targeted for recall by liberal activists. That seems to be legal under the state’s version of the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Of course this is a fishing expedition in search of something embarrassing. And of course there’s a big difference between an individual using Freedom of Information legislation to expose government misconduct, and the party in power using it to harass and intimidate a critic of the government.

What does it take to become the target of this kind of attack?

Many faculty members call themselves “Marxists” or “socialists,” and some describe themselves as “anarchists” or “revolutionaries”—but Cronon doesn’t. He’s not Bill Ayres, the education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who happily defends his Weatherman past. Cronon describes himself as a “centrist.” He says he’s never belonged to the Democratic (or the Republican) party. Yet he faces a Republican demand for his e-mail, while Bill Ayres never did.

Some commentators have suggested Cronon became a target because he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, suggesting that Wisconsin’s Republicans were reviving McCarthyism. But the demand for Cronon’s e-mail came a couple of days before his column appeared.

What provoked the Republicans was Cronon’s first-ever blog post, published at his new website, “Scholar as Citizen.” The demand for his e-mail was filed right after that appeared; thus that blog post provides the key to understanding why the Republicans want to stop Bill Cronon. It was titled “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?” Cronon’s post didn’t make a complex argument, the way his books do. Instead it presented a simple fact, pointing to a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model laws which are then introduced by Republicans in state legislatures—for example, laws eliminating collective bargaining with state employee unions. ALEC has been in operation since the seventies and claims its members introduce 1,000 pieces of legislation every year in all fifty states.

The power of this simple fact lies in the way it disrupts the Republicans’ explanation of what they are doing in Wisconsin. They say the new law there ending collective bargaining with public employee unions is an emergency response to this year’s fiscal crisis. They say it’s a response crafted by local Wisconsin state representatives to help their neighbors who are facing big new tax burdens. Cronon suggested that none of this is true: the law is not a response to the current fiscal crisis, it’s been a Republican priority for decades; it’s not a Wisconsin idea, it comes from a national Republican think tank. And the goal is not to protect the little guy in Wisconsin but rather to help the big corporations that fund Republican operations.

Doing research on conservative groups and strategies is nothing new—indeed, Cronon’s blog provides links to several other sources of good information. But the way he highlighted the simple fact about “who’s really behind recent Republican legislation” apparently touched a Republican nerve. Now we will see how successful the Republicans are at intimidating other faculty members from doing the kind of work Cronon undertook when he blogged about the “Scholar as Citizen.”

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