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Academic Freedom Challenged

Lawsuit: Virginia court will allow climate-change researcher to argue for protection of documents

by Cheryl Hogue
September 19, 2011

A Virginia court last week set the stage for a legal battle over the academic freedom of researchers at public universities.

At the Sept. 16 hearing, Judge Gaylord L. Finch Jr. ruled that climate-change researcher Michael E. Mann can present arguments on his right to intervene in a state public records lawsuit against his former employer, the University of Virginia (UVA). Finch set Nov. 1 as the date for those arguments.

The libertarian American Tradition Institute (ATI), a group that is skeptical of climate-change science, brought the suit to obtain copies of Mann’s e-mails and other data from UVA. Mann, who worked at UVA from 1999 to 2005 is the developer of the once-contested “hockey stick” graph of temperature fluctuations over the past millennium. Mann is also one of the climate researchers whose controversial e-mails were hacked from the University of East Anglia, in England, and made public in late 2009.

ATI hopes the case will pave the way for public access to e-mail, documents, and data of academics at public universities. UVA in August provided some 4,000 documents to ATI, a public interest group that dismisses predictions of human-caused climate change. ATI is seeking another 6,200 of Mann’s documents from the university, but Finch has delayed a decision on that matter.

Mann’s attorney, Peter J. Fontaine, said in court that the researcher will argue that his documents and data are protected by the First Amendment.

David W. Schnare, director of ATI’s environmental law center, told C&EN after the hearing that ATI believes that UVA owns the documents and data. This is because UVA is a public university, he said, and Mann was a public employee; thus his documents are public and should be released under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. He predicted the arguments over whether—and to what degree—Mann, UVA, or public universities and their professors can assert academic freedom protections under the First Amendment will end up before the Virginia Supreme Court and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is going to be precedent-setting,” Schnare said.

The ATI case against UVA is similar to a separate legal effort by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II (R) to obtain Mann’s e-mails. Cuccinelli, a climate-change skeptic who is challenging federal regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions, is conducting a criminal fraud investigation into federal and state grants that Mann received while he was a researcher at UVA (C&EN, Nov 1, 2010, page 22). That case is pending before the Virginia Supreme Court.



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