The Supreme Court of Virginia today ruled in favor of the University of Virginia (U.Va.) in its attempt to protect researchers and their work from unwarranted access through the commonwealth’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The unanimous decision in the case American Tradition Institute v. the University of Virginia is the latest development in the university’s effort to protect various documents and emails relating to former U.Va. Professor Michael Mann’s climate change research, which was subject to attack by various activist organizations.
The court stressed the fact FOIA laws could put public universities at a competitive disadvantage to private institutions if they are required to disclose research information and communications, writing that “in the context of the higher education research exclusion, competitive disadvantage implicates not only financial injury, but also harm to university-wide research efforts, damage to faculty recruitment and retention, undermining of faculty expectations of privacy and confidentiality, and impairment of free thought and expression.”
“We are gratified that the Supreme Court of Virginia recognized the importance of safeguarding the free exchange of ideas that is integral to the academic environment at American colleges and universities and to producing the type of research and innovation essential to the nation’s economy,” said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad in a statement. “This decision supports the process whereby academic researchers brainstorm, debate, criticize and refine scientific hypotheses, a key point we argued in court documents filed in support of the University of Virginia.”
ACE and six other associations, including the National Academy of Sciences, filed an amicus brief last December in the case.
The brief focused on how academic freedom and the First Amendment are central to the protection of research and to the innovation essential to the nation’s economy. It also argued that reversal of the lower court’s ruling would remove any incentive for those making Freedom of Information Act requests to be reasonable in their demands for documents, and the costs to public universities could escalate.