Arizona Superior Court Protects Academic Freedom in Climate Email Disclosure Case

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | March 30, 2015, 11:40 am EDT
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Arizona basketball fans may be glum after this weekend’s loss to Wisconsin, but there’s some very good news today out of Arizona: a superior court has found that the University of Arizona was right to protect more than 1700 emails to and from university climate scientists from disclosure under the state’s open records act.

In a relatively brief March 24 decision, the court said that the university had the discretion to protect “prepublication critical analysis, unpublished data, analysis, research, results, drafts, and commentary,” and properly withheld documents related to student information, ongoing research, and prepublication peer review.

The University of Arizona is one of a number of schools that has received broad open records requests for the private correspondence of scientists. A circuit court found that the university has the right to protect faculty communications.

A circuit court found that the University of Arizona has the right to protect faculty communications. Photo: ugardener via Flickr

The records request came from the fossil fuel-funded Energy and Environment Legal Institute, formerly known as the American Tradition Institute. It’s unclear as to whether E&E Legal will appeal the decision.

The most interesting part of the decision to me is the court’s recognition of how cumbersome compliance can be with requests for emails that contain highly technical information. In reviewing a representative sample of just 90+ of the 1700+ requested emails, the court called the volume and complexity of the emails “daunting.” It continued:

While reviewing 90 emails may seem like a relatively easy task, such was not the case here. The emails ranged from one or two pages to multiple pages to at least one exceeding 800 pages in length. Further, to describe the content of the emails as technical and esoteric is an understatement. Many hours were spent reviewing the emails and, by no stretch, was the Court able to fully comprehend the substance of the emails.

E&E Legal has filed open records requests in several other states. Last year, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled against the organization, finding that excessive disclosure could cause  “harm to university-wide research efforts, damage to faculty recruitment and retention, undermining of faculty expectations of privacy and confidentiality, and impairment of free thought and expression.”

The use of broad open records requests to intimidate academics is becoming more and more common. In February, I released a detailed analysis of how activists across the political spectrum use these requests to harass academics, distracting scientists from their research, costing universities many thousands of dollars, and creating a chilling effect on those who do research in contentious topic areas.

The same week the report was released, Science revealed that fourteen universities throughout the country recently received open records requests for the private correspondence of genetic engineering researchers.

So what are the solutions here? I’m thinking more and more that we need common standards of disclosure and creative mechanisms to ensure that both private and public universities embrace those common standards. What we don’t want are expensive and time-consuming lawsuits every time an ideologue gets a bee in his or her bonnet.

But for now, this is a win for scientific inquiry in Arizona, and scientists who work at the state’s public universities should breathe a little bit easier today. Excessive disclosure can have a significant chilling effect on researchers’ ability to communicate frankly with each other. We should all be in favor of protecting scientists who are courageous enough to advance knowledge on issues that are considered politically contentious.

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  • David Rice

    Excellent news.

  • Michael Halpern

    Hi, auntalice, I think you need to read a little closer.

    The “skeptics as victims” meme is super interesting, but you won’t find that much to pick apart here. Kelly is right that we’re equal opportunity defenders of academics, whether they’re in the mainstream or on the fringe.

    If you read the Freedom to Bully report I reference above, you’ll see that I’m equally critical of the University of Delaware equivocating for four years over an open records request of climate contrarian David Legates. You’ll also see numerous examples of the exploitation of open records laws from the left and from the right.

    And that’s what makes this issue so interesting! With attacks coming from across the political spectrum (again, as I mention above), we have a real opportunity for non-ideological reform that protects scientific research while allowing for accountability. That’s why I talk about common disclosure standards–not disclosure standards for one group or another group.

    That accountability is important, too. And yes, that does mean that academics should minimize and disclose conflicts of interest, and that universities should disclose private funding, as well as whether there are any strings attached to that funding. You can learn more here:

    • Alice Pruneau Suszynski

      I saw no mention of Legates in the link.

      I agree that the disclosure issue is being used as a cudgel but I think more information is better than less…always.

      • Michael Halpern

        Again, please read the report. Page 15 references Legates. Page 8 references Pat Michaels and Fred Singer. I’m guessing they’re also in the camp of those whom you would assume we wouldn’t try to defend. The direct link:

        With regard to disclosure of financial conflicts of interest, as I’ve also written before, we focus way too much on case of the individual researcher and whether or not he or she is being persecuted and not enough on the failures in the disclosure process. The bigger question with regard to Willie Soon is the fact that the Smithsonian entered into a secret agreement with Southern Company that gave anonymity to the company and gave the company the right to review Soon’s work prior to publication. That’s just not something any institution should agree to.

      • Alice Pruneau Suszynski

        Thanks for the link to the report. I’ll read it later. I applaud any attempt to uncover the truth about funding sources as long as it’s even handed which this latest search for villains is most decidedly not.

        You say “After interviewing experts
        on scientific research and climate denialism, we were not able to find a
        single case of a conventional climate scientist who had failed to
        disclose his or her sources of research funding”

        This claim says virtually nothing. First, who the heck are experts on climate denialism? Second, how many people did you interview? Names? I guess we should take your word for it.

        I would have to wonder, given your bias, how hard you looked because in just a very short search I found this.

        And I have to say your use of the term ‘climate denialism’ is absurd. No one denies climate. What some (a lot) of researchers and others are doing is being skeptical about the claims and predictions surrounding CAGW.

        In closing I guess the Smithsonian is doing an investigation. I guess we’ll have to see what comes of it.

      • Kelly Anspaugh

        Your patience with auntalice impressive, Mr. Halpern. But it’s clear she’s denialist to the bone and won’t be convinced by anything you say. Might as well try to reason with a barking dog.

      • Alice Pruneau Suszynski

        I suppose it is unusual for you to see someone on this blog who does something other than agree wholeheartedly. And may I say it’s very nice that you are so tolerant of other people’s views.

  • auntalice

    “The use of broad open records requests to intimidate academics is becoming more and more common.”

    Hilarious, when there is no mention of the intimidation campaign against academics who question the “consensus” view. That’s OK because it’s “for the children”

    • Kelly Anspaugh

      In fact I’ve heard some of those who come to the defense of Michael Mann and other similarly harassed climate scientists argue that NO academic scientist should be subject to these broad open records requests, including those in the denialist camp. I think that’s implied here as well.

      • auntalice

        I think I’ve seen your avatar over at Michael Mann’s facebook page. I always check it out and follow his links but I got banned a while ago for questioning the great one.

        Denialist camp…cute.

      • Kelly Anspaugh

        Rather than trolling at Mann’s page better stay at home, at WUWT, where you’ll find the company more congenial.

      • Alice Pruneau Suszynski

        Thanks for the tip but I don’t need to live in an echo chamber as you apparently do.

    • David Rice

      There aren’t any “academics who question the consensus view.”

      • auntalice

        Tell Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry, Richard Tol…I could go on but you don’t care about the truth. Go back to Michael Mann’s site and kiss his ass some more.

      • Alice Pruneau Suszynski

        Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry, Richard Tol…to name just a few of many.

      • Kelly Anspaugh

        Wow. Is that a list of scientists or a rogue’s gallery?

      • Alice Pruneau Suszynski

        it’s a list of very respected scientists. you should try to get out more.

      • Kelly Anspaugh

        “I know them all,” to paraphrase Prince Hal, and their “work” as well. Respected by whom?

      • Alice Pruneau Suszynski

        I would have loved to have this conversation with you before you said I was like a barking dog… now, not so much.

  • Jai

    In a sane world, all communications made directly between contracted researchers and representatives of third-party entities who happened to fund the researcher’s work would naturally be made public. This includes contracts with parent organizations.

    • Kelly Anspaugh

      Guess you didn’t read the article, at least the parts that explain the damage that making public all such communications can do.

      • Jai

        only communications between researchers and funders that shows how intact a firewall there is.