William Cronon is a professor of history, geography, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For what it's worth, he's kind of a big deal.
Professor Cronon wrote an invited op-ed piece in the New York Times. He also started a blog. Because Cronon's a state employee (or more to the point, because a lot of Wisconsin Republicans these days are disingenuous assholes), the Republican Party of Wisconsin decided to use the state's open records law to rifle through his campus e-mail. They're looking to see if Cronon said anything mean about them.
I'm a student of Wisconsin's (and the university thereof's) history, and I can't find anything factually incorrect about Cronon's Times column. He even got the quote from Joseph Welch right. I suspect that might be part of the problem.
The accuracy of Cronon's assertions hasn't deterred the Republicans. They want to know if Cronon used UW resources to criticize the administration of Governor Scott Walker. Actually, that's not true. What I suspect they want is to intimidate academics from pointing out the absurdness, illegality, and extremism of Walker's positions.
It's true that you can't use state resources for political activity. (Whoops!) However, I see a few glaring problems with the Wisconsin Republicans' position:
1) The professoriate. (Hooh! Good gawd y'all!) What is it good for? If its members aren't allowed to exchange ideas, it's worth approximately nothing. This would appear consistent with recent Republican policy.
2) The State of Wisconsin has an interest in getting professors to use their e-mail for all communications. It's a lot like how some companies give out pagers and let their employees use them for personal business. The more often you check your work e-mail, the more useful (theoretically) you are to your employer. This brings me to:
3) The internet is not a series of tubes. Using paid government employees to campaign for or against politicians is illegal. The same goes for driving your state vehicle to a protest. E-mail messages, on the other hand, are essentially free. Google gives them away.
I'm with Krugman. This campaign isn't about ensuring the sanctity of the civil service, it's about destroying the operation of the academy.