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Defamation Case Mixes Climate Science and First Amendment

Joe Ravi
CC-BY-SA 3.0

Before heading home for turkey, the Supreme Court this week declined to hear a case pitting a prominent climate scientist against a conservative news outlet and a free-market think tank. To be clear, this is considered a win for the climate scientist as it allows his defamation case to go forward.

Michael Mann is the scientist in question. He leads the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and is best known as one of the originators of the now infamous hockey stick graph of rising global temperatures. He is suing – or has been trying to sue - National Review and Competitive Enterprise Institute for defamation after they attacked his science and called him “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science,” saying that he had “molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science” and that the University had covered up his wrongdoing.

“These two columnists wrote pieces pretty much harpooning [Mann’s] science concerning the hockey stick graph and then inserted that comment as well,” explained Jennifer Hijazi, a reporter for E&E News covering the case, along with Pamela King.

At the heart of this case is the question of whether those statements are verifiable facts or opinions. Mann’s science has been vetted and a Penn State investigation found no wrongdoing. National Review and CEI maintain they were exercising free speech protected by the first amendment.

While climate litigation has been on the rise, Hijazi says this case stands out.

“There are many different kinds of climate cases from climate damages, lawsuits from U.S. municipalities all over the country, and shareholder lawsuits like the one we saw in New York,” Hijazi said. “This case is unique because it really is a perfect storm of two hot-button issues right now. It makes strange bedfellows of climate science and First Amendment issues.”

The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the appeal means that Mann’s defamation suit can now move forward in lower courts, and Mann has said that he is looking forward to the trial.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.