William Cronon is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Earlier this week he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the history of the labor movement in Wisconsin, and Scott Walker’s radical departure from that. He also recently started a blog, where he has tried to piece out who was behind the movement to eliminate public employee collective bargaining rights.

In this, Cronon is no different than academics across the country, writing their opinions online. But this conflicted with the plans of very powerful people, and so they have attempted to silence him.

Here’s the headline: the Wisconsin Republican Party has issued an Open Records Law request for access to my emails since January 1 in response to a blog entry I posted on March 15 concerning the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in influencing recent legislation in this state and across the country [...]

What I did not anticipate—though I guess I should have seen it coming, given everything else that has happened in Wisconsin over the past couple months—was the communication that the University of Wisconsin-Madison received on Thursday afternoon, March 17—less than two days after I posted my blog—formally requesting under the state’s Open Records Law copies of all emails sent from or received by my University of Wisconsin—Madison email address pertaining to matters raised in my blog. (The acronym in many other states and in the Federal government for the laws under which such a request is usually made is “FOIA,” named for the federal Freedom of Information Act [...] Remarkably, the request was sent to the university’s legal office by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, with no effort to obscure the political motivations behind it. Here’s what Mr. Thompson sent to the University’s attorneys:

“Dear Mr. Dowling,

Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:

Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.”

This is allowable under Wisconsin’s Open Records law. But the implication is clear: anyone who writes about the movement to strip workers of their rights will be harassed by the state GOP. After a while, people like William Cronon will get the hint that they should mind their own business. Even if Cronon is not silenced, he is now tainted, assumed to be a “liberal activist” working on the recall of Republican officials (eight of the names sought are the “Republican 8″ state Senators) while using his state-owned email account. This is an abuse of the Open Records law to intimidate critics.

James Fallows has a very good take on this, as well as Josh Marshall. This, from Fallows (who lives in China), was poignant:

The reason this strikes me particularly hard at the moment: I am staying in a country where a lot of recent news concerns how far the government is going in electronic monitoring of email and other messages to prevent any group, notably including academics or students, from organizing in order to protest. I don’t like that any better in Madison than I do in Beijing.

Really kind of disgusting, but par for the course for these Wisconsin Republicans. Do read Cronon’s entire detailed response to this.