Does the AAUP approve of FOIA-ing professors’ emails?

Should we cheer or boo when outspoken professors at state universities become the target of public records demands filed by antagonists seeking their emails and correspondence? As we had occasion to note during the Douglas Laycock controversy in May and June, there’s plenty of inconsistency on this question on both left and right. Some who cheer FOIA requests when aimed at scholars supportive of the environmental and labor movements, for example, later deplore them as harassment when the tables are turned, and vice versa.

If there’s any group you might expect to take a consistent position on these questions, it’s the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), its members being prospective targets of such requests and thus at the very center of the issue. So what’s their opinion?

In 2011, when politically liberal University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon was the target of a FOIA request by state Republicans, AAUP sent a strongly worded letter on its letterhead denouncing the move as a threat to academic freedom. The group likewise came to the defense of environmentalists targeted by conservatives.

This spring, an AAUP document on “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications” (see pp. 12-14) was moderately critical of FOIA requests targeting University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus and his journal editor over a much-criticized study providing social conservatives with ammunition against changes in family law favorable toward gays. Since no one suspects the AAUP’s leadership of sympathy with the content of Regnerus’s work, this suggested that the skepticism toward FOIA might be founded on principle.

Not long afterward, however, when prominent (and politically unclassifiable) University of Virginia law professor Doug Laycock came under FOIA attack from gay rights activists who disapproved of his courtroom work on religious liberties, the AAUP was quoted in the press talking in a more vague and reticent way of “balance” and saying it weighs in on particular controversies rather than taking general stands.

Now turn to the University of Kansas, where Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at Kansas University’s business school is under FOIA attack, accused of being too close to the free-market economics favored by donors from the Koch family of Wichita (who have also given much support over the years to the Cato Institute, which publishes this site). So what do you know? The state AAUP chapter is actually leading the charge against Hall, its members have raised funds to support the public records demand, and its state president vocally insists that there’s no danger whatsoever to academic freedom in allowing, as a group once put it, “fleeting, often casual e-mail exchanges among scholars to be opened to inspection by groups bent on political attack.”

You might start to wonder whether the AAUP is going to hold to any consistent position at all beyond the convenience of the moment. (& George Leef, Phi Beta Cons; reprinted at Minding the Campus) Update: Judge halts process to review proposed email release [Will Creeley, FIRE]


  • Fascism is a consistent position.

  • “screw you Republicans, you’re always wrong” is plenty consistent.

  • The AAUP position is completely consistent; it follows the teachings of their God, VI Lenin, who memorably wrote, “Kto, kogo?” [who, whom]. the target of the request determines their views. if it is a class enemy, let it rip, if it is a Party supporter, stand privacy rights. Easy to understand, no?

  • […] Olson at Overlawyered (and reprinted at Minding the Campus) argues that the AAUP is hypocritical and left-wing in its […]

  • As I note on AcademeBlog, there’s nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about the AAUP’s stand on FOIA requests: some are legitimate, some are not, and it has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Asking for information about whether donors are influencing the executive director of an administrative unit strikes me as very different from seeking out personal emails or targeting the opinions or research of a professor.

  • Claims of donor influence and entanglement with outside political forces and interests arose in many of the earlier controversies, too, which did not keep the AAUP from warning against the dangers to academic freedom of letting adversaries launch fishing expeditions. Before a court can even rule on the relevance of the Kansas FOIA demands, the state AAUP president is scornfully denying in the press that the center’s director has legitimate academic freedom interests worthy of respect. Would the reaction be as dismissive if the attack were aimed at a center sponsored by an ideologically committed donor of the opposite coloration such as, say, the Ford Foundation? Would the AAUP send an outraged letter on behalf of a professor targeted for being active on the right the way it did when Prof. Cronon in Wisconsin was targeted for being active on the left? Saying that every situation will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis doesn’t go far to answer these questions.

    Here’s the AcademeBlog link:

  • There is a quote by Albert Shanker, asked about the interests of the children whom his union members taught: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” This quotation is listed as “disputed” by Wikipedia, but it rings true.

    The issue of whether the AAUP should be on the side of any academic in any situation like this, or they should adopt a “balanced” attitude is a reasonable one on its face. Without unlimited resources, you need to pick your fights. However, that choice is a political one, and when that political decision is made, it’s just about impossible to make decisions based solely on matters of principle. Inevitably, extraneous issues will kick in. Do you like the guy? You’ll go further for him. Do his political opinions differ from yours? Not so much.

    My reading in this case has largely been limited to its coverage on Overlawyered, but certainly the case surrounding this coverage indicates a political bias. Certainly, AAUP Kansas State President Ron Barrett might reasonably have kept his mouth shut instead of publicly worrying about the students’ ability to pay for their case against one of his union’s members.


  • Thanks, Walter, for the link to academeblog, and a classic in moon-battiness.
    Read the first comment under the pseudonym of– you guessed it– “freespeechlover”
    He equates funding political opinions that he dislikes with CIA torture.

    “I don’t know why we come here!”
    “I guess we’ll never know!”
    “It’s like some kind of torture
    “To have to watch this show!”
    –two chronic hecklers at The Muppet Show

    “You don’t like the Goths?”
    “No! Not with the persecution we have to put up with!”
    “Religious persecution. We won’t stand for it forever.”
    “I thought the Goths let everybody worship as they pleased.”
    “That’s just it! We Orthodox are forced to stand around and watch Arians and Monophysites and Nestorians and Jews going about their business unmolested, as if they owned the country. If that isn’t persecution, I’d like to know what is!”
    ? Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp