If you're reading this you probably know the name Michael Mann. If you don't, here's the quick version: Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and Director, Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. In 1998, he was lead author on a famous paper (the "hockey stick" paper)showing a dramatic increase in global surface temperature. He's been a target of those who deny a human influence on climate change ever since.
In 2011, Ken Cuccinelli (then Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia) filed suit asking the University of Virginia to turn over documents related to research Mann did while he was a faculty member there (link). The American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Council on Education supported the University of Virginia's refusal to supply the documents Cuccinelli requested, and the Supreme Court of Virginia denied the request.
Now I learn that there's a different case pending.
In a case scheduled to be heard on Thursday by the Virginia Supreme Court, the university and several national higher-education groups are arguing that the open-records law should not be construed as giving an advocacy group access to many research-related documents produced Michael E. Mann, the climate scientist, while he was on the university's faculty.
On the other side, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has joined 17 media organizations in arguing that the records-request exemption being sought by the university is so broad that it would effectively gut the law at issue, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, hindering journalists' ability to cover public institutions. (source; likely to be paywalled, sorry)
A conservative advocacy group, the American Tradition Institute, filed the initial request for documents, and the University was apparently inclined to agree to much of the request until Mann, the American Association of University Professors, and other groups urged them not to. The case apparently centers on the interpretation of "data, records, or information of a proprietary nature", because such records can be excluded from a freedom of information request. Several media organizations have filed briefs supporting release of the records, arguing that the lower court decisions interpreted the "proprietary nature" clause so broadly that it would effectively gut Virginia's open records law.
I am not a lawyer, so I can't comment on which side of the argument has the better legal case. I can also say that although I don't know the details of this case, I am inclined to think that the American Tradition Institute is on a fishing expedition, seeking to harass and intimidate Mann and to dissuade other scientists from investigating human effects on climate change. If it were only the data that the American Tradition Institute were seeking, they would have a strong case, and Mann probably wouldn't object. My understanding is that he and the entire climate science community have already made much or all of their data freely available in a true spirit of openness and transparency. But the suit seeks access to correspondence between Mann and other scientists. In the end, I agree with the arguments from a brief filed by the American Association of University Professors and the Union of Concerned Scientists that are summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"Requiring the production of correspondence with other academics will have a particularly strong chilling effect on intellectual debate among researchers and scientists," the brief argues, because the exposure of preliminary, unpublished thoughts to the public eye will "inhibit researchers from speaking freely with colleagues, with no discernible countervailing benefit."