On October 22, 2012, climate scientist Michael Mann sued the National Review (NR), the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), along with two writers, NR writer Mark Steyn and CEI writer Rand Simberg, for defamation. Mann’s lawsuit alleges that NR, CEI, Steyn, and Simberg’s (hereafter “the defendants”) allegations of scientific fraud and their comparisons of Mann to convicted Penn State child molester Jerry Sandusky were libelous. The defendants answered Mann’s lawsuit in court with motions to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that their claims of misconduct were protected opinion speech and not provably false, that Mann was a public figure, and that Mann’s lawsuit qualified as a SLAPP against their right to free speech. On July 19, 2013, DC Court Judge Natalia M. Combs Greene issued two orders that denied all the motions to dismiss the lawsuit and permitted Mann’s defamation lawsuit to proceed.
The first part of the motions to dismiss that Judge Combs Greene addressed was whether or not Mann would be able to reach the evidence standard required by the DC Anti-SLAPP Act. This law was created to protect defendants from what are known as SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuits, and the DC law requires that the plaintiff (Mann in this case) be able to demonstrate a “likelihood” of winning before the lawsuit is allowed to proceed1. The defendants argued that the “likelihood” standard required a high probability or even 100% certainty of winning in order to not dismiss the lawsuit, but Judge Combs Greene rejected those arguments. Quoting precedent from California (upon which DC based its Anti-SLAPP Act), Judge Combs Greene found that Mann need only meet a “likelihood to succeed on the merits” by way of “proof by a preponderance [majority] of evidence.”
In order to determine whether or not Mann reached the “preponderance of evidence” threshold Judge Combs Greene first had to address the defendants’ claim that their various accusations of fraud and academic misconduct against Mann were merely “rhetorical hyperbole” and opinions. However, according to Supreme Court opinions referenced by Judge Combs Greene, this argument requires that the defendants’ accusations not be based on factual information that could be proved wrong using available facts. Judge Combs Greene ruled that claims like “hockey-stick deceptions,” “data manipulation,” and “intellectually bogus” work were, in reality, based on facts, and specifically “provably false” facts at that. Judge Combs Greene wrote that the “hockey stick deceptions” statement
goes beyond harsh debate or “rhetorical hyperbole.” Rather the statement questions facts – it does not simply invite readers to “ask questions.”
She also wrote that the “data manipulation” statement “relies on the interpretation of facts (the [CRU/Climategate] emails).”
Lest there be any question about Judge Combs Greene’s dim view of the defendants’ claims with respect to their accusations against Mann, she also wrote that
Given the dictionary definition as well as the common readers’ thought about the use of these words (fraud and fraudulent) the Court finds that these statement (sic) taken in context must be viewed as more than honest commentary-particularly when investigations have found otherwise. Considering the numerous articles that characterize [Mann’s] work as fraudulent, combined with the assertions of fraud and data manipulation, the [NR and CEI] Defendants have essentially made conclusions based on facts. Further, the assertions of fraud “rely upon facts that are provably false” particularly in light of the fact that [Mann] has been investigated by several bodies (including the EPA) and determined that [Mann’s] research and conclusions are sound and not based on misleading information….
The content and context of the statements is not indicative of play and “imaginative expression” but rather aspersions of verifiable facts that [Mann] is a fraud. At this stage, the Court must find that these statements were not simply rhetorical hyperbole. (emphasis added)
The defendants also claimed to be acting as journalists offering “fair comment” and “supportable interpretation,” both of which are protected speech under DC law. However, Judge Combs Greene found that these claims were untenable since DC law required that the defendants’ reporting be “fair and accurate” in order to qualify. Judge Combs Greene wrote that
Having been investigated by almost one dozen bodies due to accusations of fraud, and none of those investigations having found [Mann’s] work to be fraudulent, it must be concluded that the accusations are provably false. (emphasis added)
Claims that are provably false are, by definition, neither fair nor accurate.
Finally, the defendants asked Judge Combs Greene to dismiss Mann’s lawsuit because the First Amendment guaranteed them freedom of speech. However, as with all the rights defined in the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech is not without its limits even when dealing with a limited public figure like Mann2. Essentially, the Supreme Court has ruled that even public figures can sue for defamation when “actual malice” is involved. The examples of “actual malice” offered by Judge Combs Greene were making provably false accusations and making statements with reckless disregard for whether the statements are true or not.
Judge Combs Greene found that, while there was as yet sufficient evidence to demonstrate “actual malice,” there was a “strong probability” that the defendants “disregarded the falsity of their statements and did so with reckless disregard.” And so Judge Combs Greene found that there was sufficient evidence of “actual malice” to permit the lawsuit to proceed to the discovery process, where both Mann and the defendants must open up their emails and documents to the court and each other and where evidence of actual malice by the defendants might be uncovered.
After considering the arguments and reviewing the record, Judge Combs Greene denied the motions to dismiss Mann’s defamation lawsuit. She found that the CEI had lobbied for investigations into Mann’s scientific conduct yet continued to allege that his research was fraudulent even after a dozen independent investigations had cleared him of those allegations. She found that the NR had been aware of the results of the investigations and yet it too had continued to make provably false allegations. And while she didn’t find that the evidence presented had risen to the level of “actual malice,” she also said that it was entirely possible that the discovery process could turn up that evidence. By denying the motions to dismiss the lawsuit, Judge Combs Greene essentially said that Mann had presented a preponderance (majority) of evidence that he had been defamed by the defendants, and thus the lawsuit should proceed.
Mann’s lawsuit is proceeding. So long as there are no additional motions to dismiss3 or appeals of Judge Combs Greene’s orders, the next step is legal discovery. S&R will bring you updates in this case as they become available.
1 SLAPPs have historically been a way to force public citizens and small organizations from criticizing large and powerful interests, but in this case the larger and more powerful organizations (NR and CEI) were claiming that the Act protected them from Mann’s claims of defamation.
2 Mann became a limited public figure as a result of political opposition to the conclusions of his original hockey-stick papers in 1998 and 1999 – that human activity had raised North American temperatures to the highest level in ~2000 years. Essentially, groups like the CEI and various Congressional Republicans didn’t like the fact that his scientific conclusions indicated that industrial climate disruption was unprecedented in the last several thousand years. The free speech argument put forth by CEI and NR was viable only because Mann had become a public figure due to the actions of CEI and their allies.
3 The National Review and Mark Steyn have filed another motion to dismiss based on what they allege are errors of fact made by Judge Combs Greene. S&R is in the process of reviewing the new motion and will be reporting on it soon.