When it comes to issues of libel and defamation, I usually find myself siding with the press. I think of cases like Hustler Magazine v. Falwell or Bollea v. Gawker, or even New York Times v. Sullivan. But what if statements of opinion in the press invalidate accurate facts about important issues like climate science?
WGBH and WCAI recently aired a story about a recent case that asks this question. Michael Mann, a climate scientist who leads the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, and who is the originator of the hockey stick graph of rising global temperatures, sued the National Review and Competitive Enterprise Institute for defamation in 2012. His reasoning was that the publication denied his science and called him “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science.”
Now, several years later, the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case, which, according to this story, is a win for Mann because it allows his defamation case to move forward. Jennifer Hijazi, the reporter for E&E News interviewed in the clip, shares her thoughts about the complicated nature of the case. She notes that Climate litigation is a relatively new legal topic, while First Amendment issues are much more familiar to the Supreme Court.
Either way, this specific legal dispute deals with the fine line between an opinion of Mann as a public figure and libelous claims about scientific facts. “I think those waters become murky, particularly when those opinions are interwoven with facts in a piece,” said Hijazi in her interview. She goes on to say that this type of case should be heard by higher courts.
I agree with Hijazi that this is a complicated combination of topics and on the one hand, bringing it to the Supreme Court could have been beneficial in finding and setting a precedent for free speech as it relates to modern political discourse. However, on the other hand, name-calling aside, it should be fair to call out publications for libel when they discredit important (and scientifically proven) facts about significant issues.
Climate change and other environmental issues are very important to me, so I’m biased when it comes to this topic. But while I’d like to say that these publications are horrible for spewing lies and perpetuating a false narrative for political gain, I think agreeing or disagreeing with scientific research does fall into a grey area of opinion versus fact and it’s tricky to differentiate.