Guest essay by Chris Horner
The curiously titled article, “Climate scientists, facing skeptics’ demands for personal emails, learn how to cope”, in today’s E&E News “ClimateWire” http://www.eenews.net/climatewire/2014/01/21/stories/1059993161 (paywalled), is characteristic of a recent uptick in the campaign to discourage universities and courts from properly interpreting open records laws for all requesters — not just the right kind of requester.
The piece opens somewhat oddly: “In the spring of 2012, Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, received a somewhat unusual request: The American Tradition Institute, a conservative group, wanted to search through his emails”, yet several paragraphs later wrote “Schmidt and a number of others had already been on the receiving end of such requests.”
Possibly mentioning the Greenpeace model deployed at the University of Virginia, University of Delaware, Harvard-Smithsonian and elsewhere, or USA Today’s Dan Vergano working with another Hockey Stick author to obtain emails from George Mason University’s Edward Wegman, would have helped resolve the conflict whether this is somewhat unusual or not (the PEER official quoted in the article misstates our “template”; it is Greenpeace’s noble efforts, not Climategate).
Regardless, it was Texas A&M’s records officer who received the request, for Texas A&M emails, in the most sincere form of flattery Greenpeace could ever aspire to. It is humble of them that they don’t. By way of apparent explanation for the modesty, as I noted here, Greenpeace informed a Charlottesville newspaper that our requests were nothing at all alike, because our objectives are different.
The piece contains the usual tropes, including Scott Mandia’s assertion that a FOIA request is akin to shooting someone. The attentive reader may ask, but, Scott, doesn’t that mean that Greenpeace has shot an awful lot of researchers?
Later in the article, making a request under an open records law is not merely “harassment” — curse you, you harassing lawmakers who dare adopt these requirements that I unwittingly signed a piece of paper agreeing to! — but an “attack”. (What is the analogy when they take your trash every week, a Greenpeace speciality to which I was treated?)
With similar accuracy the reporter claims we sue academics over their emails; no, we sue public universities when they do not comply with the law. It is Michael Mann who sues individuals over what they say.
There is also the serial, de rigueur insistence by Texas A&M climate activist Andrew Dessler, among others, that emails a state-school academic agreed as a condition of his employment were not his are, too, his, or as the headline says, “personal”.
But as Greenpeace knew, the correspondence that such a taxpayer servant chooses to conduct on the university-provided account is presumptively work-related, and as such is the university’s. Which is to say, the state’s, which is to say the taxpayer’s, barring application of one of certain enumerated exceptions. We have never in fact sought “personal” emails. The continued insistence on claiming we have possibly indicates how strongly they view their argument against disclosure.
More helpful was the implicit call to remind readers that we did in fact publish what we found at TAMU, such as in this piece in the Washington Examiner. For example, we found that the Union of Concerned Scientists has placed a Washington, DC, outfit called Prism Public Affairs at these folks’ disposal for when they need some friendly media. Say, Frontline, when they are bothered by certain people (not Greenpeace) using FOI laws. And UCS brings them to Washington for training to serve UCS’s purposes, to be UCS activists while wearing their taxpayer-servant hat. It was a very useful request.
The reporter did conflate TAMU requests; the first one did in fact produce Dessler correspondence with the New York Times’ Justin Gillis, who was going to Paris to interview Richard Lindzen. Finally doing so was “unavoidable,” and “[s]o I need a really good bibliography of all the published science” countering Lindzen’s position on cloud feedback — “that is, anything that stands as evidence against Lindzen’s claim that the feedback has to be strongly negative.”
In the de-brief emails, some uncomfortable mockery followed about Lindzen being interested in the experience of Parisian Jews in WWII. So, yes, there were professionally and personally embarrassing or discrediting emails produced, but more important were the substantive revelations about UCS as a vehicle for taxpayer servants, and the program they offer.
Other than that, it was purely harassing gunplay, apparently.
As to the rakish destruction of emails, well, as you might expect that’s far more nuanced than Dessler’s assertions that make it into the article indicate. More on that later, but those paying heed should closely read not only their state’s law, but their employer’s policies. To put it gently we have found, for example at UVa, that doing so was not always the case.
It seems difficult for this crowd to accept but neither repetition nor feverishly wishing or believing something to be so magically make it so. Taxpayer servants just certain that work-related emails are “theirs” or “personal”, or that they are special and above the laws enacted and policies they agreed to, should proceed deliberately. It is possible that attempts to lawyer their way out from under them will work. Destroying records in the meantime should not be done lightly.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2014