Chilling the discussion

MinnPost columnist Don Shelby writes this week about politicians’ abuse of the Freedom of Information Act to conduct fishing expeditions in hopes of embarrassing or intimidating those with whom they disagree.

The latest example is the Wisconsin Republican Party’s request for the email archive of a university professor who criticized Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to strip public employees of bargaining rights. The university told the Republicans to take a hike.

Shelby also writes about Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli’s efforts to obtain emails and other documents from climate scientist Michael Mann. Mann is no stranger to this type of intimidation – he’s a regular recipient of crank emails and even death threats.

Attacking the messenger is hardly a new tactic, and it’s perfectly understandable why it’s so popular. Consider the lesson of “Climategate.” A few sentences pulled out of context from a batch of stolen emails was all it took to buffalo the media and completely confuse the public about climate science. Despite numerous investigations that exonerated the scientists involved, it’s still common to hear claims that researchers were “caught red-handed manipulating the data” or some such thing. The phrase “hide the decline” continues to show up in Congressional hearings.

Manufactured controversies clearly do the job. Just ask Shirley Sherrod.

The problem isn’t that political activists engage in underhanded tactics. It’s that we keep enabling them by falling for it, every single time.

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