The American Tradition Institute v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia & Michael Mann, 2014 Va. LEXIS 54, ---- Va. ----- (Va. April 17, 2014)

In this case the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a professor’s climate research records were exempt from disclosure as academic research records, as AAUP argued in an amicus brief submitted to the Court.  The Court explained that the exclusion of University research records from disclosure was intended to prevent “harm to university-wide research efforts, damage to faculty recruitment and retention, undermining of faculty expectations of privacy and confidentiality, and impairment of free thought and expression.” While the decision was limited to a Virginia statute, it provided a strong rationale for the defense of academic records from disclosure.

The case began in 2011, when the American Tradition Institute served a FOI request on the University of Virginia regarding Professor Michael Mann’s climate research. This request mirrored the subpoena previously served on the University by Attorney General Cuccinelli. (We previously reported on the conclusion of the Cuccinelli v. UVA case which was decided by the Virginia Supreme Court.)   The University supplied some records, but took the position that the majority of the records were not subject to public disclosures.  Thereafter, ATI petitioned to compel the production of these documents.  Professor Michael Mann sought to intervene, arguing that the emails in question were his and therefore he should have standing in any litigation relevant to any document release. AAUP submitted a letter to the trial court, the 31st Judicial Circuit Court of Virginia, in support of Mann’s intervention, and the court granted him standing. 

The AAUP and the Union of Concerned Scientists subsequently filed a joint amicus brief with the Circuit Court.  On April 2, 2013 the Circuit Court held that all of the records sought by petitioners qualified for exclusion under the Virginia FOIA exemption for “data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty of staff of public institutions of higher education….. in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific or scholarly issues, whether sponsored by the institution alone or in conjunction with a governmental body, where such data, records or information has not been publicly released, copyrighted or patented” or under the exemption for personnel records.  The court also ruled that purely personal email messages are not public records under the Virginia FOIA.

The Virginia Supreme Court granted a petition for review and the AAUP, in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists, filed a brief with the court supporting Professor Mann and UVA and arguing that granting access to the private materials would have a severe chilling effect on scientists and other scholars and researchers. The brief urged that “in evaluating disclosure under FOIA, the public’s right to know must be balanced against the significant risk of chilling academic freedom that FOIA requests may pose.” The brief also argued that enforcement of broad FOIA requests that seek correspondence with other academics, as ATI sought here, “will invariably chill intellectual debate among researchers and scientists.”  Also, exposing researchers’ “initial thoughts, suspicions, and hypotheses” to public scrutiny would “inhibit researchers from speaking freely with colleagues, with no discernible countervailing benefit.” 

In April 2014, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision upholding the trial court’s decision that none of the requested records were subject to disclosure.  The primary issue was whether the research records were “proprietary” under the statute.  The Court found that the legislature wanted to ensure that public universities were not at a competitive disadvantage in relation to private universities.  The Court noted that this applied not only to financial injury, but also to “undermining of faculty expectations of privacy and confidentiality, and impairment of free thought and expression.”  The Court also cited the numerous affidavits attesting to the harmful nature of the disclosures, quoting extensively from one that discussed the threats to possible collaborations with faculty at public institutions. Therefore, the Court found that the term proprietary was intended to have a broad definition that resulted in the exclusion from disclosure of the requested research material.