Environmentalist v. Conservative Media: Defamation or Opinion?

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann has been at war with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and the National Review since July 2012. After attempts to get the disparaging material removed from various online publications, In October 2012, Mann filed a defamation lawsuit against the two organizations. The defendants attempted to have the case dismissed, asserting that it met the SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) definition of an attempt to silence critics and that Mann’s claims fell short of the standards of defamation of a public figure. The motions were denied. The case survived.

Mann first attracted criticism after his publication of the “hockey stick” graph, which showed that global temperatures increased dramatically during the twentieth century after having remained relatively stable for hundreds of years. In the 20-plus years since the graph’s publication, numerous studies have produced similar results. Additionally, government organizations and universities in the US and the UK have concluded that Mann’s work and conduct are scientifically sound. The CEI column at issue, as well as the National Review one that followed it, indicated that Mann was clearly guilty of scientific fraud. They accused Mann of “data manipulation” and “scientific misconduct,” calling his claims “intellectually bogus.”

The court found that Mann was a public figure, which means he must prove the defendants made their statements with “actual malice.” This standard is met if they acted “with knowledge that [a statement] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Both asserted that they were using hyperbolic language and that Mann could not establish that either had exhibited a reckless disregard for the truth. The court disagreed, stating that the columns contain “not pure opinion but statements based on provably false facts.” It also noted that both defendants had called for Mann’s investigation on numerous occasions, which could be construed as a reckless disregard for the truth.

The court did not find that either defendant acted with actual malice. Making that determination is a question for the discovery process. The National Review threatened to request access to Mann’s e-mail if the suit advances to discovery, but Mann has simply stated that he is “pleased that the judge threw out [the defendants’] motion to dismiss the case.” There will be ample opportunity for legal jockeying between the parties, as the next hearing is not scheduled until September.

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