A Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group has sued the University of Arizona demanding the release of a cache of documents — including two professors’ emails — related to climate change and global warming.
The Energy and Environment Legal Institute, which until recently was known as the American Tradition Institute, first requested the documents in December 2011. It sued in Pima County Superior Court in September, after the university released some of the documents, but withheld most on what the institute considers questionable grounds.
“The taxpayer is paying for this in many ways,” said Christopher C. Horner, a Virginia-based attorney for the organization.
Horner said the public is entitled to see the emails because employees of the state university system created them as part of their official duties, and they remain stored on publicly funded computers.
UA Professors Malcolm Hughes, of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, and Jonathan Overpeck, with the department of geosciences and the department of Atmospheric sciences, wrote the emails. They were sent to other academics across the country and in Europe, and to organizations such as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The complaint said the institute requested the emails in December 2011 as part of its ongoing “transparency project,” in which the group requests records from publicly funded institutions involved in research and polices related to climate change and global warming.
“These are plainly public record,” Horner said.
For example, the group’s complaint notes that the university withheld thousands of emails. The list covered 213 pages.
The reasons for withholding the documents were numerous but many included terms such as “correspondences between colleagues” and “correspondences between collaborators,. Horner said those reasons did not suffice as legal justification.
University officials later said the documents were withheld to protect the best interests of the state and intellectual property or trade secrets not available to the public.
“What they said in essence was, ‘so, sue us,’ ” Horner said.
University officials did not want to comment on the specifics of the complaint but did provide an emailed statement.
“The University of Arizona is committed to transparency in our operations and activities. Every employee is informed of their responsibilities to comply with public records requests as a condition of their employment,” the statement said.
While not addressing this specific complaint, the statement identifies reasons university documents might be exempt from disclosure. Those include education records, proprietary information, unpublished research, draft scientific papers and other material whose release would pose harm to “the best interest of the state.”
Tucson attorney Michael Bloom said the law in Arizona supports the public when seeking information from the government.
“Arizona has a strong policy in favor of the public having access to public records,” Bloom said.
Bloom regularly gives lectures and presentations to attorneys’ organizations and other groups on Arizona’s public-records law, and routinely uses public-records requests on behalf of his clients.
Bloom said the burden of proof falls on the government entity to justify why a record would be exempt from release under the state’s broadly defined public-records law.
In the case of email records, Bloom said the public entity that would deny a request has to provide an index of the emails in question and include which exemption under the law allows withholding the record.
Like other publicly funded institutions, the university is subject to the state’s public-records statutes, which generally consider emails to be public documents.
UA Professors Hughes and Overpeck drew the attention of the Energy and Environment Legal Institute and other activist groups beginning in 2009 when details of the Climate Research Unit, or so-called “Climategate,” scandal surfaced.
In 2009, a server at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit was hacked and thousands of email exchanges between academics, researchers and activists were released and later published.
Horner and other skeptics of the prevailing theory of man-made climate change argued the emails showed evidence that scientists involved in researching climate change colluded to produce evidence to bolster claims that human activity was the main cause of global warming.
Emails from Hughes and Overpeck were among those released.
A second round of hacked emails and documents was released in 2011.
Horner said he has been in contact with the university’s outside counsel and expects an answer to the complaint soon.
The case was assigned to Pima County Superior Court Judge James Marner. A hearing date has not been set.