Academic Freedom Wins in Cuccinelli Climate Case

In a big win for academic freedom over the forces of creeping authoritarianism, the Virginia Supreme Court today sided with the University of Virginia in its fight against Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's investigation of former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann.

Mann, who now works at Penn State, has been a target of climate change deniers for his famed "Hockey Stick" graph that shows the world's temperatures have risen sharply over the last 50 years.

"I'm pleased that this particular episode is over," said Mann following the decision. "It's sad, though, that so much money and resources had to be wasted on Cuccinelli's witch hunt against me and the University of Virginia, when it could have been invested, for example, in measures to protect Virginia's coast line from the damaging effects of sea level rise it is already seeing."

The court upheld an Albemarle Circuit Court ruling that set aside Cuccinelli's demands for Mann's emails and other documents related to grants Mann received to study climate change while at UVA.

Cuccinell had sought the information under the state's "Fraud Against Taxpayers Act," alleging that Mann might have committed a fraud against the taxpayers while at UVA by using what Cuccinelli claimed might have been manipulated climate change data in order to get federal grants. Cuccinelli has said he believes that climate change is a hoax, and has said academic freedom should not shield scientists from investigations into whether they might have broken a law.

But Cuccinelli's investigation was without a reasonable probable cause, and so amounted to a political witch hunt. Albemarle County Circuit Judge Paul Peatross ruled in August 2010 that Cuccinelli had failed to adequately state what Mann might have done wrong, and further that he lacked authority to investigate federal grants. Cuccinelli appealed to the state supreme court.

Cuccinelli had sought a broad application of the law's language, seeking to extend it to state agencies like UVA. But the supreme court disagreed with Cuccinelli's claim that the university can be considered a "person" subject to subpoena under the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. "In sum, neither by express language nor by necessary implication does FATA provide the Attorney General with authority to issue CIDs to commonwealth agencies," wrote Supreme Court justice Leroy F. Millette Jr., in the decision.

"The university should be commended for its courage in standing up to the attorney general to ensure Virginia will remain a safe place for scientific research, even when elected officials don't like the results," said Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists Scientific Integrity Program. "Academic institutions have the responsibility to protect their faculty's ability to discover new things about our world without fearing harassment or political reprisals. Officials at research universities around the country should scrutinize this case and make sure they are prepared to respond appropriately to similar attacks."

Halpern said that various courts in Virginia have found in favor of the university on both substantive and procedural grounds. "From the beginning, the attorney general had no case, and has wasted the state's time and attention for nearly two years on this boondoggle."

Numerous other investigations, including ones by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences, have reaffirmed Mann's work, further increasing confidence in the "Hockey Stick" graph.

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