Judge Says Websites Must Face Defamation Lawsuit For Calling Climate Scientist A ‘Fraud’

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A judge for the D.C. Superior Court on Thursday refused to let libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and conservative news site National Review off the hook from a defamation lawsuit brought by climatologist Michael Mann, saying the sites’ musings about the accuracy of Mann’s research may not be protected by the First Amendment.

Mann had sued the outlets in 2012, claiming they published defamatory articles accusing him of academic fraud and comparing him to a convicted child molester, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Specifically, Mann alleged that CEI published — and then National Review republished — an article calling Mann “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet.”

Judge Frederick H. Weisberg on Thursday ruled that while “opinions and rhetorical hyperbole” are protected speech under the First Amendment, accusing a climate scientist of lying about his seemingly factual data is serious enough to warrant defamation claims.

“The allegedly defamatory aspect of this sentence is the statement that plaintiff ‘molested and tortured data,’ not the rhetorically hyperbolic comparison to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky,” Judge Weisberg wrote.

The statement “he has molested and tortured data” could easily be interpreted to mean that the plaintiff distorted, manipulated, or misrepresented his data. Certainly the statement is capable of a defamatory meaning, which means the questions of whether it was false and made with “actual malice” are questions of fact for the jury. … To state as a fact that a scientist dishonestly molests or tortures data to serve a political agenda would have a strong likelihood of damaging his reputation within his profession, which is the very essence of defamation.

Judge Weisberg denied CEI’s and National Review’s motions to dismiss the lawsuit.

Mann’s scientific work and professional conduct have been celebrated, questioned, and vindicated more than perhaps any other scientist in recent memory.

In 1999, Mann published a timeline of global temperatures stretching back nearly 1,000 years, which showed fairly stable trends until 1900, when temperatures spiked sharply upward. This was deemed the so-called “hockey stick” diagram, which “became a lightning rod in the debate on whether humans were influencing the climate,” The Daily Climate wrote in 2012. In 2007, Mann, former Vice President Al Gore, and the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize for work connecting human activities to global warming.

In 2009, however, a string of emails illegally obtained from University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom purported to show that Mann and the climate scientists he worked with had manipulated the data. Investigations were conducted by more than seven organizations, from the National Science Foundation to Penn State — all of which said the allegations were baseless. Still, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli spent two years and $500,000 unsuccessfully suing to obtain more emails from the University of Virginia, where Mann had once worked. That investigation also came up empty.

Judge Weisberg’s full order on Thursday can be found here.