Freedom of information trumps academic freedom 

After months of invoking “academic freedom” to string along the Virginia attorney general’s office, a state legislator, and the American Tradition Institute, the University of Virginia has finally been court-ordered to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Within the next 90 days, UVA must turn over 9,000 documents sent to and from former climatologist Michael Mann, creator of the now debunked “hockey stick” climate graph, to ATI’s Environmental Law Center.

The ruling was a partial victory for public disclosure and a vindication of ATI’s dogged pursuit of transparency in taxpayer-supported institutions.

The documents must be released electronically, unlike the printed “hieroglyphics” UVA has released to date. The university must also allow ATI attorneys David Schnare and Chris Horner to view any it believes are exempt from release under FOIA – with the burden of proof on UVA.

“The court will determine whether the public’s right to know how taxpayer-funded employees use the taxpayers’ resources can be hidden behind the ivy-covered walls of our public colleges and universities under a non-existent FOIA exemption,” Horner said in a statement.

Exactly one year ago, UVA refused to honor a FOIA request submitted by state Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, claiming that it had deleted all of Mann’s records when he left the Charlottesville school for Penn State.

However, university officials later acknowledged retaining the files of former climatologist Patrick Michaels, who worked in the same department as Mann.

ATI filed a lawsuit, forcing UVA to finally admit that they hadn’t deleted Mann’s emails after all.

However, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli hit a roadblock when he asked for the records under a civil investigative demand (similar to a subpoena). That case is now before the Virginia Supreme Court.

But as Examiner Local Opinion Zone blogger Norman Leahy pointed out, there’s more than one way to skin a cat:

"ATI and Del. [Bob] Marshall appear to have succeed using existing law to (eventually) compel the University to give up the documents it once told Marshall had been erased, as Mann was no longer an employee. ATI plans to make them public. … UVA’s inglorious and inconsistent history in this case leaves it with few good options. One thing is clear now, though: it must cough-up the documents under FOIA. And that’s a start.”

Schnare and Horner had to promise that they would not disclose the contents of any documents withheld until the court rules on whether UVA’s FOIA exemptions are valid, but they do get to see all of them. That's a major breakthrough.

“After trying to wear us down for five months, UVA spent a half million dollars trying to get the court to create an exemption for ‘academic freedom’ that the legislature never sought fit to create,” Horner told The Examiner.  “It’s clear that the university did not believe the FOIA law applied to them. After we filed our lawsuit, they suddenly decided it was time to clean up the record.”

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