Climate Scientist Michael Mann Prevails in $1 Million Defamation Lawsuit Against Right-Wing Bloggers

WASHINGTON (AP) — A climate scientist, Michael Mann, was awarded a $1 million verdict in a defamation lawsuit against two right-wing bloggers on Thursday. This landmark decision is resonating throughout the climate discourse community, which remains highly contentious. The jury, comprised of six individuals, unanimously ruled in favor of Mann in the trial held at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Mann, expressing his satisfaction with the verdict, stated, “I hope this decision sends a clear message that falsely attacking climate scientists is not protected speech.” The defendants, Rand Simberg and Mark Steyn, were found to have defamed Mann in their blogs. Although the publishers were deemed not liable, this judgment solely applies to the bloggers. It is worth noting that a court ruling three years ago established that part-time contributors could not hold the publishers accountable for their writings.

Despite the waning popularity of blogging and the strengthening consensus on global warming over the past 12 years, climate scientists like Mann continue to face personal and professional attacks as the debate surrounding the future of fossil fuels remains polarized. According to the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, a New York-based organization that provides legal support to climate scientists, they assisted a record number of 32 individuals and groups in 2023. However, Executive Director Lauren Kurtz does not believe that this verdict will alter the beliefs of climate deniers or put an end to attacks on scientists.

Kurtz explains, “It’s uncommon to witness a scientist fighting back as vigorously as Michael Mann has. Many people are unaware of the extent to which other climate scientists are being targeted, and due to valid personal and professional reasons, they are unable to confront these attacks publicly.”

The cases represented by the Defense Fund involve a range of issues, including defamation threats for publishing new research, fear of employer retaliation for public speaking on climate change, and invasive requests for open records. For example, in 2023, the Defense Fund defended a professor from a public university who faced a subpoena from an oil and gas company demanding the disclosure of her research on greenhouse gas methane. The organization, providing pro bono representation, successfully protected the professor from what they deemed an attempt to silence and discredit her.

In the specific case decided recently, Mann faced a particularly direct attack. Simberg and Steyn likened Mann’s science to a child sex abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, where he was previously employed. They alleged that Mann had manipulated data and accused the university of covering up his misconduct, similar to how they handled the case of disgraced assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Mann, testifying during the trial, described the impact of the defamation on himself, stating that he felt isolated within the community and experienced a significant decrease in research grant funding.

As a highly visible public figure, Mann had to meet a high threshold to prove that the blogs constituted defamation. According to Supreme Court precedent, he had to demonstrate that the defendants acted with knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth. The jury concluded that Mann successfully met this burden of proof. Steyn, who hails from Canada, admitted during the trial that he was unaware of the specifics surrounding American investigations before attacking Mann in his writing.

Following the verdict, Steyn took to social media, stating, “A Bad Day for America,” and linking to an article on his website where he expressed concerns about the potential impact of the decision on the First Amendment. Steyn plans to appeal the verdict, with his website implying that he expects the $1 million judgment to be overturned by the United States Supreme Court.

It remains uncertain whether Steyn’s assertion will hold weight, as the Supreme Court has gained a new conservative justice, Amy Coney Barrett, since Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent in 2019 when the court refused to hear an appeal to block Mann’s case. The dissent claimed that Mann’s lawsuit, regarding blogs comparing him to a convicted child molester, threatened the “robust and uninhibited debate on important political and social issues.”