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Ongoing Battle Over Academic Freedom in Virginia

By Gwendolyn Bradley

The AAUP and three other defenders of academic freedom joined together in April to file an amicus brief asking the Virginia Supreme Court to affirm a lower-court order setting aside a demand from Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli for the private communications of a global-warming expert once on the faculty of the University of Virginia.

Signatories to the brief are the AAUP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Cuccinelli, whose opposition to the science of global warming is well-known, created a public stir in spring 2010 when he sought records from UVA related to the communications and research of former professor Michael Mann, a widely published proponent of global-warming theory. Among the broad range of records sought were e-mails that Mann sent to, and received from, colleagues from as far back as 1999.

Cuccinelli is using the Virginia Fraud against Taxpayers Act to gain access to Mann’s records. Under the act, the attorney general may issue a “civil investigative demand” for information related to acts of fraud against the state, but he must first have “reason to believe” that an act of fraud has been committed and must assert the nature of the conduct under investigation. Lawyers for UVA have argued that the attorney general has not met either of these conditions.

When UVA officials stated publicly that they were inclined to give in to the attorney general’s demands, the ACLU of Virginia and the AAUP wrote a letter asking UVA to stand up for academic freedom by fighting the demand in court. It did so, and the court ruled in its favor. After the court ruling, Cuccinelli issued a new civil investigative demand to UVA for access to documents related to Mann’s research and appealed the dismissal of his earlier ones to the Virginia Supreme Court. In response to a separate but very similar records request from a conservative advocacy group, UVA agreed in May to turn over public documents relating to Mann’s work by August 22 and other documents in September.

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