Virginia Judge Exempts Academic Work from FOIA

18 April 2014

The Virginia state Supreme Court ruled April 17 that emails and unpublished research by a university professor are proprietary records dealing with scholarly research and therefore exempt from disclosure under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Skeptics of global warming, State Del. Robert Marshall (R-Prince William) and the American Tradition Institute, had sought records from a prominent climate researcher, former University of Virginia professor Michael Mann.

Justice Donald W. Lemons, ruled that the university’s definition of “proprietary” was too narrow. Lemons wrote, “Competitive disadvantage implicates not only financial injury, but also harm to university-wide research efforts, damage to faculty recruitment and retention, undermining of faculty expectation of privacy and confidentiality, and impairment of free thought and expression.”  The justices also said the act was not intended to put the state’s public universities at a disadvantage to private institutions.

Read the opinion on the Virginia Coalition for Open Government website

The ruling pleased researchers but concerned open government advocates. “I would encourage people to read the ruling without thinking about their opinion about global warming,” said Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The court also said state agencies may charge requesters for the time necessary to review requested documents to see if any exemptions apply.

See also detailed article on the ruling from the perspective of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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