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American Association of Geographers Resolution in Support of Professor William Cronon

The American Association of Geographers, acting through its Executive Committee and National Council, and on the recommendation of its standing Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, condemns the recent attempt by the leadership of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, through its open records request, to intimidate Professor William Cronon.  William Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an eminent figure in the fields of historical and environmental geography.  Professor Cronon is also a citizen-scholar in the best tradition, making his research available to the public in a variety of venues. The use of Wisconsin's Open Records Law to acquire Professor Cronon’s university emails, after he posted a portion of his research online, is a reprehensible attempt to stifle this public voice.

The role of the AAG's Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Committee is to support the free development of scientific inquiry and exchange and to investigate incidents where geographic scholars have been restricted in the pursuit of their work. The Committee concurs with University of Wisconsin-Madison officials that this challenge to academic freedom risks creating a "chilling effect" on scholarly research and exchange.  It is one thing to use freedom of information laws to encourage government transparency, and quite another to rifle through a professor's files in order to harass a critic.  Public records laws help ensure government accountability, but recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)-based requests may seriously damage scholarly and public debate.  As University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Carolyn (Biddy) Martin stated, on 1 April:

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created.

We are equally troubled by recent similar FOIA requests, such as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s recent request for the e-mails of professors who study labor at the three largest public universities in Michigan. Our nation's public universities have a founding mandate to apply research and knowledge toward understanding how the world works and to solving critical public policy dilemmas.  At times, scholars like Professor Cronon uncover uncomfortable information. However, the details they expose help us – scholars and citizens alike – to better understand our world. We cannot allow a scenario whereby scholars employed at public institutions fear being subjected to politically motivated and intrusive harassment simply for addressing matters of civic importance, or seeking to engender debate.

We affirm our organization’s affinity with formal statements against this form of political intrusion, on Professor Cronon’s work, by the American Historical Association, the American Anthropological Association, the American Association of University Professors, and the Modern Language Association. We also call for the withdrawal of the request for Professor Cronon’s communications records and support public dialogue and civic engagement without intimidation and harassment, for academic freedom and the scientific and societal benefits it brings, and for our colleague Professor William Cronon.

Drafted and approved by the AAG's Committee on Scientific Freedom & Responsibility, 31 March 2011

Approved and forwarded to Council by the AAG Executive Committee, 1 April 2011.

Amended and adopted by the Council of the Association of American Geographers, 11 April 2011.