E-mail Requests Target AFT Faculty Members

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Recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and open records requests issued to college faculty in Wisconsin and Michigan have put AFT members on alert regarding their vulnerability when it comes to accessing their e-mail.

In Wisconsin, the Republican Party requested access to the e-mails of AFT member William Cronin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after he posted a blog entry and wrote an op-ed for the New York Times criticizing the attacks on collective bargaining on his campus. The Republican request covered any e-mails that included the names of certain legislators and union leaders.

In Michigan, a conservative think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, sent a broad public records request to faculty in the labor studies programs at Wayne State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, looking for all electronic correspondence references to "Scott Walker," Wisconsin," "Madison" or MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow.

These requests are, "nothing more than attempts to intimidate university faculty members," AFT president Randi Weingarten said in a statement. "Clearly, their goal is not to seek the best solutions for the economic problems we face in the states and as a country, but rather to shut down open political discourse and to limit the academic freedom of professors whose independent voice has always been a critical component of public debate."

Such politically motivated requests can violate privacy, threaten academic freedom and provide possible grounds for union grievances.

AFT general counsel David Strom and his staff can advise any members who are faced with similar requests, and they urge anyone who suspects unfair targeting to contact their local counsel, and also inform the AFT. State information laws vary regarding the kind of e-mail that is considered to be "public record" and whether it is exempt due to its private or personal nature. But some elements of the law are the same: FOIA and public access laws were never meant to be used as a tool of harassment.

The AFT also can guide locals that are considering implementation of an e-mail retention policy designed to retain important documents and periodically purge others. For more information, see the AFT legal department's guidance on FOIA requests or e-mail AFT Higher Education. [Virginia Myers]

April 13, 2011