The Supreme Court on Friday will consider whether to take up a prominent climatologist’s defamation suit against a venerated conservative magazine, in a case that pits climate scientists against the free speech rights of global warming skeptics.
The dispute between scientist Michael Mann and the National Review has drawn attention from lawmakers, interest groups, academics and media, as the court weighs adding a potentially blockbuster First Amendment showdown to an already politically charged docket.
Scientists hail Mann’s lawsuit as a necessary defense against efforts to erode public confidence in the scientific consensus that climate change is an urgent threat (sic), while free speech advocates have rallied around the iconic conservative publication.
The case has made for strange bedfellows, with the National Review receiving backing from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which has produced award-winning coverage of climate change; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); The Washington Post; and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“The only way to protect free speech for our allies is to protect it for our adversaries,” Arthur Spitzer, ACLU D.C.’s legal director, told The Hill. “Today it’s unacceptable to deny climate change, but yesterday it was unacceptable to deny that homosexuality was sinful, and tomorrow it may be unacceptable to deny that robots are better parents than humans.”
Mann, the plaintiff, gained renown among climate scientists in the late 1990s for his “hockey stick” graph, which showed a sharp uptick in the earth’s temperatures over the 20th century as carbon emissions from human activity were also on the rise.
He later came under fire from skeptics after leaked emails with colleagues fueled accusations of misconduct, in a controversy dubbed “Climategate.” But in 2010, Mann’s employer, Penn State University, cleared the research professor of wrongdoing.
The National Review questioned the decision, though, accusing the school of a whitewash, and Mann of scientific fraud. Writers likened Mann to “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science,” a reference to the then-recently convicted serial pedophile and former football coach at Penn State.
“Instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data,” Mark Steyn wrote for the magazine, quoting the work of a blogger at the libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, another party to the suit.
Mann, who was cleared of wrongdoing in several separate investigations, threatened legal action if the accusations of data manipulation and misconduct were not retracted.
In an abrasive response, National Review editor Rich Lowry penned an article bearing the headline “Get Lost.” Practically taunting Mann to sue, Lowry said the magazine looked forward to prying additional documents through the discovery process because it would only discredit Mann further.
He’s going to go to great trouble and expense to embark on a losing cause that will expose more of his methods and maneuverings to the world,” Lowry wrote. “In short, he risks making an ass of himself. But that hasn’t stopped him before.”
Mann’s litigation threat was not an idle one: He sued for defamation in D.C. court in 2012. In response, the magazine argued Mann was violating D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law, which aims to swat away lawsuits that target speech about matters of public interest.
By winter of 2016, D.C.’s high court dismissed the National Review’s argument. Mann’s defamation suit could proceed, a judge ruled.
This May, the magazine appealed to the Supreme Court. The justices will meet on Friday to consider whether to take the case. The court could grant or deny the appeal — or delay a decision.
As they deliberate, the justices may consider briefs from nearly two dozen GOP senators, a trio of former Republican attorneys general and a slate of libertarian and conservative groups, all of whom support the magazine’s appeal. The groups warn of a chilling effect on speech if the justices allow the D.C. court’s ruling against the writers to stand.