The Virginia Supreme Court has ordered the conservative nonprofit Energy and Environmental Legal Institute to pay $250 in damages to the University of Virginia and a climate scientist who previously worked there.
The organization lost a lawsuit in April against the University of Virginia and scientist Michael E. Mann, with the state’s high court ruling that Mann’s unpublished research and e-mails about global warming, written when he was still at the school, were exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. This month, the court ordered that the group pay damages to the school and the scientist, who now works at Pennsylvania State University.
In its lawsuit, the group had sought to obtain Mann’s records in a bid to debunk his climate change research. The case has become an emblem of the political battle over climate science, pitting academics against conservative groups and politicians who are skeptical of findings that blame human activity for global warming.
Mann’s research became a target during a 2009 controversy dubbed “Climate-gate,” in which a hacker released more than a thousand e-mails exchanged among climate researchers. Some of the e-mails were seized upon by skeptics as evidence that scientists had manipulated or falsified data and tried to suppress criticism. E-mails written by Mann were among those released, but two reviews by Penn State and an investigation by the inspector general of the National Science Foundation cleared Mann of misconduct.
Ken Cuccinelli III, former Virginia attorney general and 2013 Republican gubernatorial nominee, was among those who targeted Mann. Cuccinelli tried and failed to obtain a civil subpoena to gain access to Mann’s work papers to scrutinize his use of grants.
The Energy and Environmental Legal Institute tried to follow up on Cuccinelli’s efforts by requesting the same documents from U-Va. through a FOIA request; the group subsequently sued the school for refusing to comply.
For Mann, the ruling exempting his academic work from FOIA and the order that the nonprofit group pay damages have set a precedent for other states to defend researchers’ documents from what he calls “assaults” by fossil fuel investors and their supporters.
“Below the radar screen, there are many other climate scientists that are being harassed by these very same groups,” Mann said. “The court recognized that threat.”
He added that while the $250 amount isn’t large, it carries weight in the big picture.
“It was a token amount, but I think it’s still important,” Mann said.
David Schnare, general counsel for the plaintiff, said the court’s decision was a mixed bag. While the group did not gain access to Mann’s e-mails and research, the court did clarify the terms by which academic research can be exempt from future FOIA requests. He added that the clarification set the stage for other like-minded groups to pursue Mann’s documents with a new understanding of what they can request and how.
“The story isn’t over,” Schnare said.
Mann maintains that the ruling is a national example for the defense of the academic community.
“This is a victory for scientists, academics and academic freedom,” Mann said.