Ethan Elkind, an attorney who researches and writes on environmental law for the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) at the UC Berkeley School of Law. Photo: ethanelkind.comBy Ethan Elkind  
18 August 2014

(Legal Planet) – Dr. Michael Mann, one of the country’s leading climate scientists, has been harassed, threatened, and berated for his views that human actions are contributing to global climate change. But not just from anonymous commenters on websites — from leading publications like the National Review Online. After being compared to Jerry Sandusky and having the credibility of his work questioned, Mann finally has had enough. He is suing Rand Simberg of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) blog and Mark Steyn at National Review Online for defamation.

So what is defamation and how do you prove it? To be sure, this is not my area of legal expertise. But the basics are fairly straightforward. As an overview, defamation means a public attack, based on false facts, on a person’s professional character or standing on an issue of public interest. The attacks have to cause damage to the plaintiff.

You can defend yourself against charges that you defamed someone by proving that you spoke the “truth.” You can also defend yourself by saying it was just an “opinion” as opposed to fact, although some jurisdictions have eliminated that distinction.

In this case:

Mann alleged that four phrases in Simberg’s post were defamatory: “data manipulation,” “academic and scientific misconduct,” “posterboy of the corrupt and disgraced climate science echo chamber,” and accusing the Penn State professor of molesting his data and thus being the “Jerry Sandusky of climate science.” He also cited a subsequent CEI press release that called his research “intellectually bogus.”

Trevor Burris of Forbes penned a full-throated defense of National Review and the other defendants, arguing that their words amounted to nothing more than name-calling: […]

I disagree. First, the comments against Mann aren’t just name-calling — they are name-calling to further false challenges to Mann’s work. They misleadingly call into question the accuracy of Mann’s research and methodology. In reality, there’s no real scientific debate on the overall facts. Sure, you can debate the scale of the warming and the precise amount of impact that human activity is having, but an astounding 97% of scientists have reached consensus on the overall issue. The courts should rightly investigate how factually plausible the challenges to Mann’s work are.

But should climate advocates be afraid of riding the defamation tiger, in case it turns around and bites them, as Burris suggests? I think there’s nothing to fear from judicial scrutiny if advocates label the fossil fuel-funded campaigns against their work phony and misleading. After all, a court wouldn’t sanction someone for calling people crazy who deny that smoking causes lung cancer or HIV causes AIDS. These are areas of broad scientific consensus with overwhelming supportive evidence. The link between human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is as equally supported. [more]

Why Michael Mann’s Defamation Suit Against Climate Denialists Is the Right Move

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