Something that I think hasn’t gotten much attention is the lawsuit brought by scientist Michael Mann against the conservative journal National Review and one of its reporters, Mark Steyn.
Dr. Mann is one of the best known scientists working in the area of climate science and policy. He received a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Yale in 1998, where he did pioneering work in global temperature reconstruction. A year later, he co-authored the 1999 report that described the so-called “hockey stick” effect, in which the earth’s temperature was relatively flat from 1000 to 1900–the shaft of the hockey stick–after which temperatures underwent a dramatic rise–the blade of the hockey stick. He was a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Third Assessment Report, and shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. He continues to be an active presence in the scientific community and climate policy debate.
Mann has seen his share of controversy. In 2009, emails illegally obtained from University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom purported to show climate scientists manipulating data. Many of the emails were to or from Dr. Mann. Several organizations conducted investigations into his work, including the National Science Foundation and his employer, Penn State. All found no indication of fraud on Mann’s part. But that didn’t stop the attacks. Mann has received death threats, and conservative groups have spent considerable time and money attempting to discredit him.
Then in 2012, Nation Review smeared Mann, drawing parallels between Penn State’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal, who was a coach at the school, and the “climate-gate” email controversy. Quoting from a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) post, Steyn wrote, “Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of political science, except that instead of molesting children he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.” Steyn also said that Mann was “behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus” and asked, “if an institution is prepared to cover up systemic statutory rape of minors, what won’t it cover up?”
Lawyers for Mann demanded that National Review remove the post and make a retraction, calling the fraud allegations “defamatory.” But NR editor Rich Lowry refused, stating that Steyn was merely “savagely witty and stung poor Michael” by exposing “intellectually bogus and wrong” research reports. In a post titled “Get Lost,” Lowry concluded that Mann “risks making an ass of himself” should he choose to file suit.
Well, file he did. On October 22, 2012, Mann sued National Review and Mark Steyn, as well as CEI and its analyst Rand Simberg, who wrote the original piece that Steyn quoted. The lawsuit, Mann’s lawyer said, was based upon NR’s and CEI’s “false and defamatory statements” accusing him of academic fraud and comparing him to a convicted child molester. At the time, Mann said the lawsuit was part of “a battle” to assist climate scientists in the fight against those who attack their work. “There is a larger context for this latest development,” he wrote on Facebook, “namely the onslaught of dishonest and libelous attacks that climate scientists have endured for years by dishonest front groups seeking to discredit the case for concern over climate change.”
CEI’s lawyers called Mann’s suit “unfounded” and gave it little chance of succeeding, noting that Mann is a public figure who has played a highly visible role in the climate science debate. Nevertheless, CEI removed the most outrageous sentences from its piece, admitting they were “inappropriate.” But National Review has remained defiant and Steyn’s article remain online at National Review to this day.
Because the suit was filed in Washington DC Superior Court, it was subject to DC’s anti-SLAPP law, which is designed to discourage nuisance defamation suits. Per Wikipedia, strategic lawsuits against public participation are typically intended to intimidate or silence critics by burdening them with legal fees until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Accordingly, National Review et al filed a motion to dismiss the suit on that basis.
But as it turns out, getting the suit dismissed hasn’t been the slam dunk NR’s lawyers thought it would be. In July 2013, DC Superior Court Judge Natalia Combs Greene rejected NR’s motion to dismiss. While Combs Green called it a “close call,” acknowledging that Mann qualifies as a “public figure” in the context of climate science debates, she concluded that despite the “slight” evidence of actual malice “at this stage” of the litigation, “[t]here is however sufficient evidence to demonstrate some malice or the knowledge that the statements were false or made with reckless disregard as to whether the statements were false.” She ruled that the case could go forward.
Combs Green retired shortly after her ruling, and the case was reassigned to DC Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg and legal machinations continued. On Christmas Eve 2013, Steyn took to his blog in a post titled “Mumbo-Jumbo For Beginners,” ridiculing Combs Green’s original ruling, accusing her of “stupidity” and “staggering” incompetence. He hasn’t written a piece for National Review since. By contrast, he was a regular contributor throughout 2013, averaging nearly a post a day.
Now comes news that on January 22, Weisberg affirmed Combs Greene’s original ruling, paving the way to the discovery phase of an eventual trial. Whether the case actually gets to trial, and whether Mann would win, remains to be seen. Libel lawsuits are difficult to win, but in Mann’s favor are the independent investigations that found no basis of “intellectual dishonesty” and NR’s stubborn stance to acknowledge any error. As Mann clears legal hurdles, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that his suit has legal merit.
Continued legal activity could prove expensive for National Review, and some have suggested that the Mann lawsuit now poses an existential threat to the publication. NR’s been appealing to their readership for financial help. In the wake of Weisberg’s ruling, it posted this appeal:
As readers of our website are well aware (from our constant dunning of them for help, if nothing else), National Review is getting sued by climate scientist Michael Mann. He took offense at a Mark Steyn post in our blog The Corner that mocked his famous “hockey stick” graph. When he threatened legal action, our editor, Rich Lowry, wrote an online piece telling him to get lost — which become part of his complaint against us. The case has dragged drearily on, but it looks as though an initial, misbegotten decision siding with Mann against our motion to dismiss has been tossed aside, and our motion to dismiss Mann’s current complaint will now likely be heard by a different judge. This is heartening. Nonetheless, it is all very expensive, and we hope you can see fit to contribute to support our legal defense (215 Lexington Ave, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10016). At stake most narrowly is the question of whether Mann’s work can be vigorously criticized, and more broadly is the fate of free speech in an increasingly politically correct society. When Mann first threatened to sue, we promised to teach him a lesson in the First Amendment, and that’s exactly what we intend to do.
National Review was founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley. One might recall that Buckley took on the extreme elements of conservatism by attacking and marginalizing the John Birch Society and others. But now it seems that his publication has been handed over to the crazies and the lightweights. It’s a shame.