One of the things that has to make you question democracy is when such a complete and utter idiot like Ken Cucinelli gets elected to an important office such as Attorney General of the State of Virginia. This guy is a pathetic ideologue. His “family values” agenda is so strong he’s decided he needs to cover up left breast of the Greek Goddess, Virtus, who is semi-topless on the VA state seal. That’s stupid and embarrassing, but ultimately harmless.
What’s not at all harmless is the completely political way he uses the power of his office. The lawsuit against health care reform is something a first-year law student can see is utterly groundless, but at least Cucinelli is joined with a bunch of other Republican nuts on that. His attack on academic freedom and its first amenment implications is in a category by itself, though. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Richard Schragger explain:
Last week the University of Virginia decided to fight a sweeping subpoena served upon the institution in late April. State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli subpoenaed documentsin connection with five grants awarded to Michael Mann—a former UVA climate-change scientist who now teaches at Penn State. Cuccinelli is using a state fraud statute to demand thousands of e-mails between Mann and climate-change scientists around the world. The request was both broad and unprecedented…
Using the threat of criminal or civil sanction to pursue “academic fraud” is the paradigm First Amendment case. Academic fraud is essentially what the authorities charged Galileo with—when he dared question the conventional religious wisdom that the sun revolved around the earth. It is what prosecutors alleged when they threatened academics during the Red Scare. And it is exactly what Cuccinelli is alleging here. The UVA subpoena violates both the individual rights of academics engaged in the exercise of speech rights on matters of public concern and the autonomy rights of the university to act independently from the government…
“Academic fraud” is too easily used to suppress ideas that the authorities do not want to hear—in one case, the earth revolves around the sun; in another case, the earth is warming. It may be that what academics say is wrong, it may be that their methodologies are faulty, it may even be that they are twisting the evidence or making stuff up. But the government, through its prosecutors, cannot say anything about that. The First Amendment requires that we tolerate lots of speech that is plain wrong or mistaken—the university itself is designed to permit, even encourage, that kind of speech.
This is a really interesting essay about academic freedom and the 1st amendment which is well worth reading, but what struck me is the utter baselessness of Cucinelli’s legal case:
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court might someday take this case and clarify the core meaning of academic freedom once and for all.
It probably won’t, and the reason it won’t only illustrates how off-base Cuccinelli’s subpoena is. Cuccinelli chose to seek the Mann documents under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act (FATA), but as UVA’s lawyers pointed out last week in opposing the subpoena, Cuccinelli never explained (as required under the law) why he was seeking these documents. The act requires a fraud on Virginia citizens, yet all but one grant that Cuccinelli seeks to investigate are federal. Worse still, the state grant was made beforethe Virginia FATA became effective. This is not the first time Cuccinelli’s hasty lawyering leads one to wonder whether he seeks legal outcomes or political ones.
“Wonder?” Clearly, Lithwick and Schragger are being too journalistic and gentle here. There can be little doubt that this in an entirely political action and a gross abuse of the powers of his office. I honestly believe that there are few worse things for a democracy than when those empowered to enforce justice abuse it for political gain (think about what dictatorships do to stay in power), which is why the Bush DOJ scandal was among the most unappreciated of Bush’s harms to the country. Shame on the people of VA who voted for this guy.