In a victory for university scholars, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled today that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli does not have the authority to demand the release of email and other documents related to the work of former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann. Cuccinelli’s global warming denial machine fishing expedition had been criticized even by climate ‘skeptics’ who are no friends of Prof. Mann. It raised the chilling question of whether the university could protect researchers' ability to privately and freely correspond with one another.
The Court’s 26-page ruling is here (PDF).
The court’s ruling was on the question of Cuccinelli’s statutory jurisdiction vis-a-vis the university. From the Times-Dispatch:
The Virginia Supreme Court today sided with the University of Virginia in its fight against the state attorney general's investigation of former U.Va. climate scientist Michael Mann.
The court upheld the Albemarle Circuit Court ruling setting aside Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's civil investigative demands for documents related to grants Mann receive to study global warming.
Cuccinell sought the information under the state's Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.
But the high court ruled today that the university is not "a person" under the act, and the term "corporation" as used in the statute does not include state agencies such as public universities. …
“Certainly, I do think that it's important for the university to be able to protect the privacy of its researchers and the ability of scientists to ask tough questions,” said Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group. “This is a victory for science in Virginia.” …
Amen to that, Michael.
When the Cuccinelli inquisition was initiated two years ago, we wrote (Free the Cuccinelli 40: Virginia AG demands e-mails of Michael Mann and 39 other scientists):
Virginia’s combative right-wing state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has issued a “Civil Investigative Demand” calling on the University of Virginia to turn over a large quantity of material about climate scientist Michael Mann, who was at the University during 1999-2005. Among the documents he is demanding are all e-mail and other communications to or from Mann and 39 other scientists, or referencing them. This latest McCarthyite inquisition, by yet another agent of the global warming denial machine, is taking fire even from climate ‘skeptics’ who are no friends of Mann. It sends a chilling message about academic freedom and the freedom of scientists and others to communicate with each other without fear that their communications will be published….
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s effort to subpoena Prof. Michael Mann’s documents and e-mail correspondence with 39 other scientists would establish a precedent for essentially destroying the ability of university faculty to correspond with colleagues with any sense of confidentiality—a terrible precedent if it is allowed to succeed. To oppose Cuccinelli’s action with pushback on multiple fronts, we can think of at least nine kinds of action that can be taken – by Prof. Mann, by the University of Virginia, by the science community, by the media, and by others. Fortunately, a number of such appropriate actions are already being taken or are under consideration. …
Climate Science Watch also joined with other groups in calling on the leadership of the University of Virginia to push back against a parallel demand by the ‘free market’ ideologue group American Tradition Institute. The University responded by toughening up its self-defense in that case, which is still pending. See:
Letter calling on Univ. of Virginia to prevent inappropriate open records disclosure of climate scientists’ exempt emails and documents [Union of Concerned Scientists, American Association of University Professors, American Geophysical Union, Climate Science Watch]
In defense of academic freedom against denialist FOIA inquisition tactics [Letter to University of Virginia President Sullivan from American Association of University professors, Virginia ACLU, Union of Concerned Scientists, and nine other groups, including Climate Science Watch]
Shawn Lawrence Otto: Academic Freedom Wins in Cuccinelli Climate Case
"I'm pleased that this particular episode is over," said Mann following the decision. "It's sad, though, that so much money and resources had to be wasted on Cuccinelli's witch hunt against me and the University of Virginia, when it could have been invested, for example, in measures to protect Virginia's coast line from the damaging effects of sea level rise it is already seeing."...
"The university should be commended for its courage in standing up to the attorney general to ensure Virginia will remain a safe place for scientific research, even when elected officials don't like the results," said Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists Scientific Integrity Program. "Academic institutions have the responsibility to protect their faculty's ability to discover new things about our world without fearing harassment or political reprisals. Officials at research universities around the country should scrutinize this case and make sure they are prepared to respond appropriately to similar attacks."
Halpern said that various courts in Virginia have found in favor of the university on both substantive and procedural grounds. "From the beginning, the attorney general had no case, and has wasted the state's time and attention for nearly two years on this boondoggle."
Funds are needed to defend Prof. Mann in the American Tradition Institute case, in which ATI is seeking to obtain Dr. Mann’s email correspondence through the civil discovery process, which essentially is an “end-run” around the scholarly research exemption under the Virginia FOIA law.