University of Virginia will seek to protect academic freedom in dealing with denialist FOIA inquisition

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University of Virginia

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan says the school plans to use “all available exemptions” under the state’s freedom of information act as it responds to a formal legal request from the American Tradition Institute seeking former university climate scientist Michael Mann’s documents and e-mail correspondence with dozens of colleagues. Sullivan’s statement came in a letter replying to the American Association of University Professors and 11 other groups, including Climate Science Watch, who have called on the university to “[balance] the interests in public disclosure against the public interest in academic freedom.”

Earlier posts:

In defense of academic freedom against denialist FOIA inquisition tactics

Virginia AG Cuccinelli inquisition goes to state Supreme Court

Deciding how to strike the appropriate balance between academic freedom and confidentiality of collegial communication, on the one hand, and the importance and value of accountability and transparency in government and public institutions, on the other, raises complex and challenging questions. Climate Science Watch sees arguments on both sides, and has a foot planted on each side of this seeming divide.

In this particular case, we are influenced by seeing what appears to us to be a McCarthyist-type witch hunt that is part of what we have described and documented as a war on climate science and climate scientists. Thus we decided to add our name to a judiciously-worded letter by the American Association of University Professors, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other organizations, leaning toward the academic freedom side. That does not lay this whole balancing problem to rest, and we will have to revisit it later with additional discussion.  

The Washington Post Virginia Politics blog reported on April 27 (“U-Va. says it will exercise ‘available exemptions’ on climate change records request”):

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan says the school plans to use “all available exemptions” under the state’s freedom of information act as it responds to a formal legal request from a conservative group seeking e-mails and documents written by a former university climate scientist.

The American Tradition Institute’s Environmental Law Center has asked that the university turn over the documents related to the work of Michael Mann, a former U-Va. professor who now works at Pennsylvania State University.

They hoped that the public information request would force the university to turn over the same documents sought by Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli (R) with a civil subpoena.

Cuccinelli is trying to force the university to turn over the documents because he says he wants to see whether a fraud investigation is warranted into Mann’s research, which has shown that the earth has experienced a rapid, recent warming.

University officials and other academics have rallied behind Mann, who they believe is being targeted by Cuccinelli because the attorney general does not agree with his research results. They note that Mann’s research has been reviewed several times, including at Penn State, with each previous inquiry concluding that there is no evidence he has falsified or suppressed data.

A dozen organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, had written Sullivan asking that she clarify how the university would respond to the Freedom of Information Act request.

In a letter dated April 21 and released by the Union of Concerned Scientists on Wednesday, Sullivan told the groups that the university’s legal tussle with the attorney general was evidence that the school is “quite conscious of the academic freedom interests about which you express concern.”

“While the University is, of course, committed to comply with the requirements of law, I wish to reassure you that this commitment will be carried out to the fullest extent possible consistent with the interests of faculty in academic freedom and scholarship,” she wrote.

Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she was pleased that the university was taking the issue seriously but concerned about a growing volume of public record requests lodged nationally for e-mails and documents produced by academics. …

The Union of Concerned Scientists noted in an April 27 news release:

… While Mann’s data and methods have been publicly available for years, the request seeks personal emails, handwritten notes, and other correspondence among scientists that is generally understood to be protected as private speech. …

A number of the organizations that signed the April 14 letter to UVA also submitted an amicus brief on April 25 to the Virginia State Supreme Court asking the court to reject Cuccinelli’s appeal of an August 2010 district court decision against his subpoena. The lower court ruled Cuccinelli failed to provide legal justification for his request.

UCS has assembled a comprehensive timeline of various attacks against the University of Virginia.

The FOIA request to the University of Virginia from the American Tradition Institute  mirrors the investigative demand for documents by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, which is now before the state Supreme Court. The American Tradition Institute is an anti-regulatory ‘free market’ policy and litigation group (“Liberty – Property – Industry”) focused on environmental and natural resource issues. The litigation director of the ATI Environmental Law Center is Christopher Horner, an aggressive climate change denialist long associated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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One Response to University of Virginia will seek to protect academic freedom in dealing with denialist FOIA inquisition

  1. Eli Rabett says:

    UVa is doing what it said it would do, mostly by asking for the full cost of the search, $35K to Horner. Some of the letters are classic lawyer snark. BTW they are doing the same for FOIAs for Pat Michaels stuff.

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