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.
“We hope other universities will think ahead and consider putting plans in place to appropriately handle similar requests at a time when public institutions find themselves strapped for resources,” she said.
The American Tradition Institute has slammed the academics for urging the university to find ways to exempt Mann’s e-mails and other documents from release under public information laws.
“ATI’s FOIA request is not on behalf of government, but of taxpayers, who have the right to know how and where their dollars are spent – or misspent,” the group said in a recent statement.
They note that the same groups did not rally around Patrick Michaels, a University of Virginia climate change skeptic whose writings were subject to a similar public records request by Greenpeace in 2009.
The university says it has treated the FOIAs consistently. It says it would release documents to Greenpeace, subject to relevant exemptions to state public records law. But it never heard back from the group after it explained how much it would cost Greenpeace to pay for the university to review the e-mails before release.
The legal fight between the university and Cuccinelli continues. U-Va. filed a brief Tuesday with the Virginia Supreme Court arguing that Cuccinelli’s civil investigative demand violates Mann’s academic freedom and should be quashed. The court is likely to hear the case in the fall.