Court orders U.Va. to turn over climate scientist records under seal in denialist FOIA harassment request

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University of Virginia

The University of Virginia will turn over research documents and emails of former U.Va. scientist Michael Mann. Any records the university seeks to exempt from release will be made available for review, under seal, by a judge and lawyers for the American Tradition Institute, which is seeking the records under a freedom of information request. ATI can seek to challenge exemptions claimed by the university, which has said it plans to use “all available exemptions” under Virginia’s public records laws to shield some documents from the ATI request.

The Washington Post Virginia Politics blog reported on May 25 (excerpt):

The American Tradition Institute’s Environmental Law Center, along with Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William), want e-mails and other documents related to the work of global warming researcher Michael Mann.

The university has said the group requested about 9,000 pages of records, and the organization says about 20 percent have been turned over so far. …

In an agreement filed in Prince William Circuit Court on Tuesday, the university agreed it will turn over all records, in electronic form, within 90 days--or Aug. 22.

The public records request is separate from a civil subpoena filed by Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli (R) demanding similar records about Mann’s research, including e-mails sent between Mann and 39 other scientists at the university and around the country. Since 2005, Mann has worked at Penn State University.

U-Va.. is … fighting Cuccinelli’s subpoena in court, and the Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. …

In a separate order filed in court Tuesday, a judge ordered that the university make available any records it exempts from release for review, under seal, by a judge and lawyers for ATI.

That way, they can attempt to challenge exemptions if they believe the university has failed to release some records required by law. …

UPDATE May 27:

Climate Science FOI report has more on the consent decree announced this week in the American Tradition Institute v. University of Virginia case (“ATI & UVa: Reviewing exempted material”). Their discussion of the agreement negotiated between the lawyers for ATI and the University raises concerns that we share as to whether the University lawyers are appropriately representing the best interests of the University and the science community. It appears that, under the terms of the consent decree, access to the contents of documents claimed by the University to be exempt could potentially be abused by lawyers for ATI and their political allies in the global warming denial machine. Does the University need to be pushed yet again, to seek an agreement that more clearly respects the claim for exempting documents from disclosure to the plaintiffs (e.g., by revealing the subjects but not the full content of exempted emails)?

Earlier posts:

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

In defense of academic freedom against denialist FOIA inquisition tactics

Michael Mann in Washington Post op-ed: “Get the anti-science bent out of politics”  

The London Guardian reported on May 25 (excerpt, boldfacing added):

Freedom of information laws are used to harass scientists, says Nobel laureate

Sir Paul Nurse says climate scientists are being targeted by campaigns of requests designed to slow down their research

Freedom of Information laws are being misused to harass scientists and should be re-examined by the government, according to the president of the Royal Society.

Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse told the Guardian that some climate scientists were being targeted by organised campaigns of requests for data and other research materials, aimed at intimidating them and slowing down research. He said the behaviour was turning freedom of information laws into a way to intimidate some scientists. …

Nurse said that, in principle, scientific information should be made available as widely as possible as a matter of course, a practice common in biological research where gene sequences are routinely published in public databases. But he said freedom of information had "opened a Pandora's box. It's released something that we hadn't imagined ... there have been cases of it being misused in the climate change debate to intimidate scientists. …

Nurse said the government should examine the issue, and think about tweaking freedom of information legislation to recognise potential misuse. …

Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford, said … "I can see what someone with a very specific political comment might gain from an unguarded comment, but it's very hard to see how science or public understanding of science gains from every exchange between scientists being made public. No other discipline operates in that way.”

[Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics said] that most universities do not have a very good grasp of the requirements of freedom of information law. But he added that researchers should be able to have confidential conversations with colleagues and researchers in other universities, and that it was increasingly difficult for researchers to do that by email.

"There's no other walk of life where every conversation you have ought to be made public," he said. "There's a massive double standard because a lot of the people submitting these requests are themselves not transparent at all. They don't reveal their sources of funding or the details of what they're doing behind the scenes." …

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