Virginia Supreme Court Rules to Protect Scientists from Onerous Document Requests

Published Apr 17, 2014

WASHINGTON (April 17, 2014) – The Virginia Supreme Court today unanimously upheld a lower court’s ruling that would block the American Tradition Institute (ATI) from receiving thousands of private emails from former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann.

The request from ATI, which was made under the state’s freedom of information law, directly mirrors one the court also rejected in 2013 from then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. In recent years, ATI and other groups have targeted researchers at several public universities with demands for wide swaths of private emails.

Michael Halpern, a program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), welcomed the ruling.

“The Court was right to protect scientists’ ability to pursue tough research questions free from threats or intimidation,” he said. “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.

“Other states should examine their own laws to ensure that they balance accountability with privacy, and all public universities should be fully prepared to respond to similar requests.”

Specifically, the court found that Mann’s business correspondence is a matter of public record but that his personal correspondence, including conversations with other scientists, is “proprietary” under state law and does not need to be disclosed. The court stated that disclosing so many of a researcher’s emails would put public universities at a competitive disadvantage against private universities that are not subject to state information laws. They wrote that such a loose interpretation of state law would undermine “faculty expectations of privacy and confidentiality” and impair “free thought and expression.”

Halpern has a blog post that examines the case in more detail, including UCS’s amicus brief. Michael Mann has also released a statement.