Climate Change Denial: Opinion or Libel?

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. 

3 thoughts on “Climate Change Denial: Opinion or Libel?

Add yours

  1. This was a really interesting topic so kudos first of all for thinking of this about this as a First Amendment issue! I have to say after reading, I think I completely agree that I’m biased, but I honestly think we all should be. Climate change literature shouldn’t be looked at on the same scale as other forms of libels because it actually affects how people think about and understand environmental changes (which shouldn’t be up for debate really anyway ugh)—thus resulting in how much they care/how much funding should be allotted/how much action should be taken. Labeling factual evidence as opinionated or wrong could literally lead to the downfall of our planet and if that isn’t an incitement of violence, I don’t know what is. I guess at least it sounds like this scientist is at least going to see a judicial win in the long run!

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  2. I never would have even thought of climate change as a First Amendment issue. But I can totally agree with you on the fact that it is totally fair to call out publications for libel when they discredit important and factual information. One cannot argue with science, for it is all based on fact. We should all feel a certain way about climate change, we were the cause of it and we can still change it! This is why we should be pushing to spread correct information so we can all change for the better, not just releasing opinionated publications containing false information for political gain. It’s just sad, honestly.

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  3. This is a really interesting way that climate change & the First Amendment intersect, and I think it’s important that cases like this come up now in order for us to effectively fight climate change and the lies spread about it in the media that go unpunished!

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