Standing by Mann: Small but punchy protest blasts Cuccinelli's 'climategate' inquest
As global temperatures rise, so does Charlottesville's profile in a worldwide debate. Two events last Friday highlighted the anger and frustration felt on both sides as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli continues his quest to peek at the early musings of Michael Mann, the former UVA climate professor and creator of the doomsday-invoking "hockey stick graph."
"Ken Cuccinelli wants to take away the most precious things we can leave to the next generation: a healthy environment and a healthy and strong university. Don't let the history books read, 'When climate scientist Michael Mann was ignored, the planet burned up.'"
So said Ryan McElveen. The 2008 UVA graduate had been hoping that at least 50 people would appear for the protest he launched with some emails and flyers. He chose Friday, August 20, because that was the day that a judge, just a mile away, was hearing arguments on whether Cuccinelli's inquest could move forward. Turns out that's also the eve of move-in for the fall semester at UVA.
"Bad timing," McElveen admitted as just two students and two professors rallied with him on the marble steps of the UVA Rotunda.
Meanwhile, mere footsteps away, the Corner district was teeming with back-to-school pandemonium. As pedestrians baked under a sunny sky that pushed the day's top temperature to 92 degrees, any thirst for protest gave way to thirst of a more primal kind.
"Oh, yeah, I was there," fibbed one coed as she reached for a Diet Cheerwine, part of a radio station's sidewalk soda giveaway. "I didn't know about it," explained another Cheerwine grabber.
Back at the rally, microbiologist Jay Brown wondered how many people might have died if polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk had to endure a Cuccinelli-style inquest, and another faculty member cast the inquest investigation in similarly stark terms.
"The political right in this country hates the University," said anthropology professor Richard Handler. "If it is a politically motivated attack on a scientific position, then it's a dishonorable and shameful misuse of governmental power, and I would hope that voters, the next time Mr. Cuccinelli stands for an elected office, would reject him on that basis."
Downtown, things were a little cooler. Inside the packed Albemarle County Courthouse, louvered blinds, powerful air conditioning, and the steely demeanor of a retired judge combined for calm debate.
Charles Battig was there. A retired anesthesiologist with a master's degree in electrical engineering, Battig has become something of a senior statesman urging skepticism over Mann's belief that humans have spiked world temperatures, which indeed have been fluctuating for eons between ice ages and tropical heat. Battig contends that the approximately half a million dollars in public money that Mann's studies consumed while at UVA give Cuccinelli ample right to probe.
"People are free to say whatever they want to say," says Battig, "but when you speak with the benefit of taxpayer money, then you're under extra scrutiny."
Extra scrutiny has abounded since last fall when a trove of emails was leaked from a British university. Promptly dubbed Climategate, the leaks showed Mann and colleagues as occasionally petty and potentially worse.
Although the word "trick" in the most prominent of the stolen emails–- a missive sent to (not from) Mann–- has been explained away, the words "hide the decline" are still causing heartburn for the climate-warming crowd, even as various university internal investigations seem to be going their way.
In July, a group of four prominent organizations including the ACLU and Charlottesville's own Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, filed an amicus brief with the Albemarle Circuit Court to say that probing a professor is tantamount to kicking America's First Amendment, the one best known for providing freedom of speech.
Like the reasoning employed in the fraternity trial scene in the 1978 film Animal House–- where any punishment of the Delta House becomes an indictment against the entire educational system (and even the United States of America)–- the amicus asserts that professors and universities possess a "constitutional right" to academic freedom, and the brief quotes a 1915 professorial association manifesto that college should be an "inviolable refuge" from the "tyranny of public opinion."
Inquest fan Battig says he wants people to know that the third United Nations panel raising alarm over global warming conveniently forgot, when first predicting 21st-century gloom, to mention the so-called Medieval Warm Period–- when Greenland, for instance, was really green. He suggests that UVA is simply "circling the wagons" in defense.
But that's not the UVA that legal analyst David Heilberg knows. Pointing to self-examinations launched by both the outgoing and incoming UVA presidents in the wake of the May 3 slaying of a female lacrosse player and the more recent suicide of an allegedly bullied literary journal editor, Heilberg contends that UVA can pluck out its own bad apples.
"I can't imagine that UVA would condone academic fraud," says Heilberg, noting that while professors may be officially exempt from the University's vaunted Honor Code, they're still working in a culture "which can self-regulate."
According to his most recent legal brief, the Attorney General might not have gotten involved if UVA had just handed over the emails to the Virginia General Assembly member who first sought them. That would be Delegate Robert Marshall.
A Bible-thumping hero to anti-abortion and anti-same-sex-marriage fans, Marshall may not be popular on campuses, but he (and every other citizen) appear to hold the legal right to obtain Mann's emails, under Virginia's no-nonsense Freedom of Information Act. Marshall asked for them back in December, but UVA spokesperson Carol Wood told him, after what was ostensibly a three-day search, that they'd all been deleted. Mann, after all, had gone off to Penn State to become famous with his hockey stick.
It turns out that UVA had a backup server. And thus spake AG Cuccinelli. As first reported back in April, he issued what's called a Civil Investigative Demand, or CID, under Virginia's FATA, or Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. He hasn't yet sued, but he's certainly not ruling out the option.
The Albemarle hearing was argued for the Commonwealth of Virginia by Wesley G. Russell Jr., who told retired judge Paul Peatross that any ruling against the CID would give UVA "the right to practice fraud."
Although UVA has its own legal team, it brought in Chuck Rosenberg from the D.C.-based firm of Hogan Lovells who argued that "being wrong is not fraud."
If either side were unhappy with letting a judge who teaches part-time at UVA's law school decide such a volatile case, they didn't voice any objection.
"Judge Peatross is a hard worker," says legal analyst Heilberg. "He will really research that thing and make a reasoned decision."
At the conclusion of the hearing, Peatross declined to issue an immediate ruling.
"You've both given me a lot of food for thought," Peatross told the legal teams, and he promised to render a "prompt" decision, "hopefully within the next 10 days."
Correction/clarification: It was the third, not the first, U.N.-sponsored panel on climate change that omitted the Medieval Warm Period from a key graph. The story has been corrected above.