Supreme Court Allows Climate Change Scientist's Defamation Case To Move Forward

By Laura Temme, Esq. on November 26, 2019

The Supreme Court has ruled that scientist Michael Mann, a Penn State professor best known for his "hockey stick" graph showing the increase in global temperature, can pursue his defamation claim against a conservative magazine and think tank.

The case dates back to 2012 when the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) published blog posts written by Rand Simberg that compared the climate change scientist to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky.

"Mann could be said to the Jerry Sandusky of climate science," Simberg wrote, "except for instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data."

Does Exoneration Equal Defamation?

Simberg's statements referred to theories that Mann and other climate scientists manipulated their data to show that human activity caused the spike in global temperature seen in their graph. Such claims were rejected by scientific organizations that investigated the matter. However, although CEI later removed the reference to Sandusky, it refused to retract the entire post. University investigators rejected these claims after investigating emails sent by Mann and the other scientists. 

The dispute pits two monolithic interests against one another: Defense against the erosion of public confidence in climate science, and upholding freedom of speech and the press.

Strange Bedfellows

The defendants, CEI and the National Review, have drawn support from somewhat surprising sources - including the Center for Investigative Reporting, which has published award-winning writings on climate change. Representatives from the ACLU have weighed in as well, saying, "The only way to protect free speech for our allies is to protect it for our adversaries."

Two judges have already refused CEI and National Review's anti-SLAPP motions to dismiss Mann's lawsuit, pointing to precedent that statements used in a "loose, figurative sense" to demonstrate strong disagreement are not necessarily protected as opinions under defamation statutes. The Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from CEI and National Review on Monday, leaving the decisions of the lower courts intact.

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