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Climate scientist’s emails are shielded from disclosure, Virginia Supreme Court says

Posted Apr 18, 2014 8:33 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that a climate scientist’s emails are exempt from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The state supreme court decision (PDF) said emails by researcher Michael Mann while he was a professor at the University of Virginia don’t have to be disclosed because the Virginia law shielded work “of a proprietary nature." The Washington Post, the Associated Press and the Richmond Times-Dispatch have stories.

The state supreme court also upheld a ruling requiring the plaintiffs to pay the university's costs of searching through documents to determine what should be exempted from disclosure.

A state lawmaker and the Energy and Environmental Legal Institute, formerly named the American Tradition Institute, had sought the emails. The group disputes that gas emissions are responsible for global warming. Press groups had supported the institute in an amicus brief.

Mann’s work was targeted after hacked emails referred to a statistical “trick” in his research. (Mann said at the time that the word was taken out of context.) Then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli subpoenaed Mann’s university records, telling the Washington Post he wanted to learn if Mann and others defrauded taxpayers in grant requests by “steering a course to reach a conclusion.” The Virginia Supreme Court ruled against Cuccinelli in 2012.

Mann called the latest ruling “a victory for science, public university faculty, and academic freedom," according to the Post.

Emily Grannis, a legal fellow with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Times-Dispatch that the ruling defined "proprietary" broadly, but it did make clear that universities must meet seven requirements to use the FOIA exemption. She also said the decision to require the plaintiffs to pay the university's costs of searching through the documents was "very concerning."

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