New Lawsuit Over Climate Scientists’ Emails

December 28, 2015

Since July, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has engaged in an ongoing campaign for internal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) documents and emails, justifying his inquiry  because – in his words – NOAA has “altered [climate] data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda.”  NOAA has produced some documents to Rep. Smith, but has steadfastly refused to produce NOAA scientists’ email correspondence.  (Previous coverage of this dispute is available here and here.)

Now, a group called Judicial Watch has entered the fray.  Using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the group has sought the same internal emails and other documents that NOAA (rightly) refused to produce to Rep. Smith.  According to a press release by Judicial Watch, NOAA did not respond to the FOIA request.  On December 2, the group filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act.

While the case is pending, Judicial Watch’s press release says that “NOAA called and told Judicial Watch that it would begin searching for documents responsive to Judicial Watch’s FOIA request.”  Judicial Watch’s president also stated that “we have little doubt that the documents will show that the Obama administration put politics before science to advance global warming alarmism.”

NOAA has already given Rep. Smith all of the data and methodologies he requested, as well as about 100 non-scientist emails.  However, NOAA has withheld emails reflecting scientists’ internal deliberations, and it has maintained that “the confidentiality of these communications among scientists is essential to frank discourse” and it “is a long-standing practice in the scientific community to protect the confidentiality of deliberative scientific discourse.”  Public letters by major scientific societies, as well as letters signed by over 600 individual scientists – including former NOAA scientists – have thanked NOAA for protecting the free exchange of scientific ideas.

We urge NOAA to continue to protect scientific correspondence in the face of the FOIA lawsuit by Judicial Watch.  As former NOAA scientists wrote, “scientists need intellectual space to debate new ideas and give each other confidential feedback without worrying that an individual comment will be subject to public scrutiny at a later date.”

Unfortunately, FOIA lawsuits for scientists’ private communications are an increasingly popular method by groups who seek to intimidate, harass, and try to discredit publicly-funded scientists.  Lawsuits across the country are attempting to use FOIA and state law equivalents to access troves of researchers’ private correspondence.  But CSLDF has been busy fighting back.  We are participating in and monitoring these lawsuits, including filing a recent legal brief in support of the protection of scientific correspondence.

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