Va. Supreme Court rules for U-Va. in global warming FOIA case

Climate researcher Michael E. Mann, formerly of the University of Virginia and now based at Penn State University, outside the Prince William County courthouse in November 2011. Conservative groups attempting to examine his e-mails while he was at Virginia have won the right to argue their case at the Virginia Supreme Court. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
File: Climate researcher Michael E. Mann, formerly of the University of Virginia and now based at Penn State University (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Unpublished research by university scientists is exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday, rejecting an attempt by skeptics of global warming to view the work of a prominent climate researcher during his years at the University of Virginia.

The ruling is the latest turn in the FOIA request filed in 2011 by Del. Robert Marshall (R-Prince William) and the American Tradition Institute to obtain research and e-mails of former U-Va. professor Michael Mann.

Mann left the university in 2005 and now works at Penn State University, where he published his book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” about his theories on global warming and those who would deny it. Lawyers for U-Va. turned over about 1,000 documents to Marshall and ATI, led by former EPA attorney David Schnare, but withheld another 12,000 papers and e-mails, saying that work “of a propriety nature” was exempt under the state’s FOIA law.

In 2012, Circuit Judge Paul Sheridan sided with U-Va., saying that Mann’s work was exempt and that the FOIA exemption arose “from the concept of academic freedom and from the interest in protecting research.” Marshall and ATI appealed.

Here is the Virginia Freedom of Information Act section at the crux of the case, one of the law’s exemptions from disclosure:

“Data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher learning…in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues…where such data, records or information has not been publicly released, published, copyrighted or patented.”

The case centered on how the General Assembly meant to define “proprietary.” Marshall and ATI argued that “proprietary” was intended to refer to matters that would affect competitive advantage and disclosures that would cause financial harm. The university cited a 1980 Supreme Court ruling of Green v. Lewis, which found that “A proprietary right is a right customarily associated with ownership, title, and possession.”

In a decision written by Justice Donald W. Lemons, the court ruled that “the higher education research exemption’s desired effect is to avoid competitive harm not limited to financial matters. The Green definition of ‘proprietary’ is consistent with that goal. Therefore, the circuit court did not err in applying that definition.”

(Note: The Washington Post joined an amicus curiae brief in the case filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press supporting Marshall and the ATI.)

Mann said after the ruling, “This is a victory for science, public university faculty, and academic freedom. We are grateful for the vigorous defense waged by the University of Virginia in protecting their faculty and the integrity of research and scholarship. Hopefully the ruling can serve as a precedent in other states confronting this same assault on public universities and their faculty.”

Schnare said, “In essence, the Court split the baby in two. It recognized the value and power of ATI’s interpretation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, but allowed U-Va. to keep its e-mails secret nonetheless. The Court did not discuss ATI’s many specific examples of how the e-mails failed to offer any competitive advantage to the University. Instead, it accepted U-Va.’s unsubstantiated fears that release of the e-mails would significantly chill intellectual debate and on that basis allowed U-Va. to continue to operate under a veil of secrecy that the citizens may not penetrate.”

Michael Halpern, a program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which also filed an amicus brief in the case, said that the state Supreme Court “ was right to protect scientists’ ability to pursue tough research questions free from threats or intimidation. Freedom of information laws are meant to keep government accountable, not to enable the harassment of scientists.  The court’s decision sends a signal to scientists at public universities that the pursuit of scientific knowledge will be protected in Virginia, no matter how their results might be received. Other Virginia universities and scientists should feel empowered to fight back against these inappropriate requests for private correspondence.”

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998. In 2011 he launched The State of NoVa blog, a state strictly defined as the boundaries of four counties and one city: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Alexandria.
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