Academic freedom is currently under attack in Wisconsin and Michigan because of right-wing requests to examine faculty email messages.
Daniel Little sounds the alarm against this “alarming intrusion into the zone of academic and personal freedom of the faculty member,” which threatens to create a chilling effect on the faculty member’s ability to freely communicate his or her ideas with colleagues without fear of retaliation or punishment, or premature disclosure of ideas not yet fully developed.” He then attempts to draw a line between email messages that should be open to the public—having to do with “business records”—and those that do not—those which are “intellectual, critical and creative documents.” He defines business records as having “to do with concrete decisions involving such issues as purchasing, contracting, personnel decisions, hiring, and other material administrative actions,” while the other documents “express the faculty member’s ideas, thoughts, judgments, and hypotheses about subjects of interest.”
Little argues for a zone of individual privacy in relation to individual employment. An alternative way of making a case for the protection of email communications other than those pertaining to business records is to argue that the community has a stake in the freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression of university employees—both faculty and staff—and that requesting email messages other than business records would undermine those freedoms and thus impoverish the community. That’s a defense of academic freedom not in terms of individual privacy and employment but in terms of the nature of the university in relation to the larger community.
It’s precisely because the administrators of the new corporate university have failed to make that case for academic freedom that scholars’ email records are now being threatened by freedom of information requests.