William Cronon is a respected author, president-elect of the American Historical Association, and a distinguished professor at the University of Wisconsin. He's also under attack by the Wisconsin Republican Party, which has filed a Freedom of Information request to see all of Professor Cronon's email that contain any of these twenty keywords: 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.
Why is he under attack? You can probably guess from the above terms.
Professor Cronon writes a personal blog, “Scholar as Citizen.” A few weeks ago he wrote a post about a conservative organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts and circulates proposed legislation to Republican legislators. Cronon alleged that ALEC played a role in the union-busting legislation championed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
The post went viral, garnering over 500,000 hits in two days. And two days after Cronon's post, the Wisconsin Republican Party filed its request with the university.
Professor Cronon and many others have charged that this is a shameless attempt to intimidate him and stifle academic freedom. He claims that the Wisconsin GOP wants to discredit him by showing that he misused state email resources.
Regardless of the motive, my takeaway from this story is that you should always keep your professional and personal correspondence separate. The first rule of email is to have two accounts. (By the way, there's no indication that Professor Cronon did anything wrong.)
Your business email may be subject to discovery pending on the laws in your state or country. Gaining access to your private Gmail or Yahoo! account, for instance, is a whole other matter. While it may be faster to just dash off a quick note to a friend from your business account, resist the urge. You never know how it may come back to bite you.