Breaking: Climate Change Scientist Michael Mann (and Scientific Inquiry) Win in Virginia FOIA Case

September 17, 2012 | 4:44 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Climate Scientist Michael Mann is reporting that in a ruling from the bench, Virginia Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Sheridan has affirmed the right of the University of Virginia to protect the privacy of its researchers from overly broad open records requests. Dr. Mann has recently been targeted by the shadowy American Tradition Institute (ATI), an industry-funded organization that doesn’t accept climate change science. From Dr. Mann’s Facebook page:

“Breaking: A victory for science! ATI loses ATI/UVa FOIA case. Judge issues final order. Affirms the university’s right to withhold scholarly communications and finds that the documents & personal emails of mine demanded by ATI were indeed protected as the university had contended.

I am gratified for the hard work and vigorous defense provided by the university to protect scholarly communications and raw materials of scholarship. Fortunately Virginia has a strong exemption in the public records act that protects research and scholarly endeavors. The judge ruled that the exemption under Virginia’s public records protecting information in furtherance of research on scientific and scholarly issues applies to faculty communications in furtherance of their work.

This finding is a potentially important precedent, as ATI and other industry-backed front groups continue to press their attacks on climate scientists through the abuse of public records and FOIA laws and the issuing of frivolous and vexatious demands for internal scholarly deliberations and personal correspondences.

 Some quick background: In 2010, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a climate change denier, issued subpoenas for the personal correspondence of Dr. Mann and dozens of other researchers through the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. Eventually, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the attorney general did not have the authority to issue such subpoenas against the university. When the attorney general started losing in court, the American Tradition Institute (ATI) submitted requests under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act for the exact same information. The university has argued in court that it has the right to exempt certain information to protect scholarly communications.  Dr. Mann’s data and research methods have been publicly available for years and have been validated by many other researchers; what is at issue here is the back-and-forth among scientists as they tested new hypotheses and ideas. ATI has also gone after climate scientists in Texas. More background is here and here.

I’m still chasing down the court documents, but if Dr. Mann’s interpretation is correct, this represents another positive development in the fight to protect scientists’ ability to pursue research that some consider contentious. All researchers should be protected from harassment, no matter how inconvenient their research results may be. And research institutions should be prepared to respond to these sorts of attacks, as I expect they will continue.

UCS and the American Association of  University Professors filed an amicus brief in support of the University of Virginia and Dr. Mann in this case.

I’ll update this post as more official information becomes available, along with any next steps that might be expected.

Update, 4:45 p.m.: Energy & Environment Daily, an inside-the-Beltway publication (subscription needed) is reporting that the judge ruled “that the emails were exempt from disclosure under the state’s public records law, according to two sources familiar with the litigation.”