Freedom of Information

The Bad Use of a Good Tool

I am disappointed and wondering if I should be worried.

Democratic society is enhanced when people hammer out solutions to difficult issues through discourse and compromise. Democracy is tarnished when, instead, people hammer at their opponents instead of confronting their ideas. The latter is how I see the recent Freedom of Information Act requests directed at particular faculty at the University of Wisconsin. One political party in Wisconsin filed for all the emails of a prominent historian just two days after he questioned the actions of the party on his blog. Last week, the UW Chancellor wrote an eloquent and inspiring response to the request.

My disappointment stems from the fact that because our population is far more educated now than ever before, I had hoped that the tactic of assaulting the speaker—rather than the content of the speech—would not have as much traction today as it did in the past. Yet it is educated people who are perpetrating this assault on reasoned discourse.

The Freedom of Information Act is an important democratic tool. It is always disheartening to see it used to challenge academic freedom. Academic freedom is specifically intended to allow free and wide-ranging inquiry even into topics that upset powerful people in our society. It serves an important purpose in a good society; it is worrisome to have to wonder whether academic freedom is imperiled by partisan assaults. I hope that responsible citizens will recognize the societal value of free inquiry and speak up.

I also hope that not a single member of our faculty will be dissuaded, even in the slightest, from continuing to pursue their intellectual passion wherever it leads them.