Climate scientist’s privacy victory may prove a lose for journalists

After deliberating for months, late last week the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of climate scientist Michael Mann in his quest to maintain the privacy of his emails against a Virginia legislator and conservative think tank that sought to access his records using Virginia’s freedom of information laws.

As I wrote last month, the trial and the court’s verdict, has bigger ramifications than the privacy of Mann, who is perhaps best known for charting the “hockey stick graph,” a plot of temperatures demonstrating an uptick in warming. Organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 17 news organizations, including National Public Radio, Dow Jones, and The Washington Post, submitted an amicus brief in November, supporting the group’s rights to Mann’s emails, on the grounds that such a verdict would protect broad freedom of information laws.

Instead, the high court ruled that while Mann’s business emails are a matter of public record, personal emails—including correspondence with other scientists—constituted proprietary information, therefore exempt from FOIA laws. It’s a win for both Mann and fellow scientists employed by public universities—who say they have increasingly faced public information requests that can be cherry picked to discredit their research and interrupt their studies. Peter Fontaine, Mann’s lawyer, called the verdict “a strong affirmation of science and those who conduct it,” while Michael Halpern, a program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organization designed to help researchers deal with paper trail blockades to their research, welcomed the verdict as a shield against undue inquiries that might impede scientists. Continue>>>