Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va. v. Cuccinelli, 80 Va. Cir. 657 (Va. Cir. Ct. 2010); aff’d, sub nom. Cuccinelli v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 2012 Va. LEXIS 47 (Va. Mar. 2, 2012)

In April 2010, the Attorney General of Virginia, Kenneth Cuccinelli, served a civil subpoena on the University of Virginia (UVA).  The subpoena demanded emails and a variety of other materials and documents relating to Michael Mann, a climate scientist who was a faculty member at UVA until 2005, when he left for Pennsylvania State University.  Professor Mann was one of the scientists involved in “Climategate,” the November/December 2009 episode at the University of East Anglia in which a leaked email from Mann referenced a “trick” he used to create the “hockey stick” graph showing a sharp increase in global warming during the recent industrialized period.  Although some suggested that the emails proved that global warming was a hoax, investigations by the National Academies of Science, Penn State, and an independent British review panel concluded that no research misconduct had occurred, and that Mann’s reference was to statistical methods rather than to fraudulent manipulations of the data.

Despite these conclusions, Attorney General Cuccinelli – who, a week before serving the subpoena, filed suit challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s fuel standards on the grounds that the East Anglia emails constituted “after-discovered evidence” regarding global warming – apparently concluded that the actions reflected in Mann’s emails might constitute fraud under Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act (FATA), which relates to expenditures of Commonwealth funds. He therefore served the University of Virginia with an extremely broad subpoena (or “civil investigative demand”) that asked for Mann’s communications with any of 39 other scientists, his communications with administrative assistants at UVA, and all materials (including computer programs) related to five grants for which he applied while at UVA.

After public pressure from the AAUP and other organizations, UVA filed a petition in Virginia court to set aside the subpoena, invoking academic freedom and arguing that Cuccinelli’s subpoena did not satisfy the requirements of FATA.  The AAUP, the ACLU of Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed an amicus brief in support of UVA’s position (.pdf).  The brief argued that the requested items were protected by the First Amendment and that the attorney general’s actions could seriously chill academic freedom, university scholarship, and intellectual debate.  The brief also argued that the political controversy surrounding Professor Mann’s work did not rise to the level of fraud under FATA (or federal law).

In late August 2010, the Virginia state court set aside the attorney’s general subpoena,(.pdf) holding that some of Mann’s grants could be the subject of a request under FATA – if they used Commonwealth rather than federal funds – but that the attorney general had failed to show any reason to believe that fraud had occurred and that the scope of any information request must be more limited.  The decision allowed Cuccinelli to try again with a more narrowly drawn subpoena, and in October 2010, Cuccinelli served another information request on UVA.  Cuccinelli also appealed the judge’s decision to the Virginia Supreme Court (and UVA cross-appealed), and the university asked the circuit court to stay its decision on the follow-up subpoena pending the outcome of the appeal.

In March 2011, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, and the University of Virginia filed a brief (.pdf) strongly asserting that the subpoenas infringe academic freedom and chill scholarly debate.  In April 2011, the AAUP, Virginia ACLU, Thomas Jefferson Center, and Union of Concerned Scientists again filed an amicus brief (.pdf) in support of the University of Virginia.

The amicus brief argues that uncertainty about the validity of scientific research cannot, without more, constitute an allegation of fraud upon the Commonwealth. The brief also notes that the Supreme Court and other courts have recognized heightened constitutional protections for academic freedom under the First Amendment, and that an investigation like this one, targeted towards scholarly or scientific research under a vague allegation of fraud, poses serious risks of causing a chilling effect.  As the brief explains, “in situations where an investigating official targets information subject to [the First Amendment’s protection of academic freedom], courts scrutinize the strength of the investigating official’s suspicion of wrongdoing and weigh it against the significant chilling effects that will result if scholars or institutions face burdensome investigations based only on the fact that they have employed research methods and reached conclusions that might prove unpopular.”

January 2014 Update: The Virginia Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a lawsuit seeking the private correspondence of climate scientist Michael Mann and dozens of other scientists. The suit was brought by the American Tradition Institute, an organization that has attacked climate scientists and science in several states, using the state’s Freedom of Information laws. The institute filed its suit after efforts by Ken Cuccinelli, then Virginia’s attorney general, to obtain the same information failed in court. The information requested was broad in scope, including Mann’s communications with any of 39 other scientists, his communications with administrative assistants at UVA, and all materials (including computer programs) related to five grants for which he applied while at UVA.  Professor Mann and UVA opposed the release, arguing that the records were protected from disclosure under the Virginia Freedom of Information laws.

The AAUP, in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has 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. While freedom of information laws are important tools for keeping public institutions accountable, the broad scope of the requests suggests that they are designed to harass and to interfere with scientists’ ability to freely conduct research and correspond with other researchers.

The University of Virginia has reportedly already spent more than $600,000 defending itself against these intrusive requests.