Amid fears over a pending war on science under incoming President Donald Trump, scientist Michael Mann won an important legal victory on Thursday against conservative writers who attempted to defame Mann for his work on global warming.
A three-judge panel with the Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that Mann can proceed with his defamation claims against Mark Steyn with the conservative National Review and Rand Simberg, who penned a July 2012 blog post for the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) think tank. Both articles likened the renowned climate scientist to Jerry Sandusky, the scandalized Penn State football coach convicted with child molestation.
In the 111-page ruling (pdf), Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz argued that the validity of the defendants' claims are questionable, particularly given that they were made in the context of an ideological debate against humanity's impact on the climate.
The defendants' statement that Mann "has engaged in misconduct has been so definitively discredited, a reasonable jury could, if it so chooses, doubt the veracity of appellants' claimed honest belief in that very notion," Ruiz wrote.
"Tarnishing the personal integrity and reputation of a scientist important to one side may be a tactic to gain advantage in a no-holds-barred debate over global warming," she continued. "That the challenged statements were made as part of such debate provides important context and requires careful parsing in light of constitutional standards. But if the statements assert or imply false facts that defame the individual, they do not find shelter under the First Amendment simply because they are embedded in a larger policy debate."
Hank Reichman with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called the ruling a "victory for both academic freedom and science."
Mann, known for drawing attention to the crisis of global warming with his famous hockey stick-shaped graph, said he was "particularly pleased that the court... found that the allegations against me have been 'definitively discredited,'" adding that he now "look[s] forward to presenting our claims of defamation to a jury."
Though a minor legal victory, it may have far-reaching implications.
"The case may lay the groundwork for future lawsuits brought by climate scientists and scientists in other hotly contested fields who believe their reputations were damaged by press reports and even organized misinformation campaigns," Mashable reports.
Indeed, the ruling comes weeks before President-elect Trump is set to take office, amid concerns that his transition team is undergoing a climate "witch-hunt," deliberately seeking out individuals at the Department of Energy who have worked on climate research under President Barack Obama. Further stoking those fears, the incoming president has appointed a cadre of climate change deniers and fossil fuel executives to key environmental posts in his administration.
Mann himself published an op-ed last week describing Trump's climate stance and the "anti-science bent" of his advisers as "ominous."
I fear the chill that could descend. I worry especially that younger scientists might be deterred from going into climate research (or any topic where scientific findings can prove inconvenient to powerful vested interests). As someone who has weathered many attacks, I would urge these scientists to have courage. The fate of the planet hangs in the balance.
In this context, many observers noted the importance of Thursday's ruling.
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) December 22, 2016
— Joris van Dorp (@JvDorp) December 22, 2016
The case will now be remanded to a lower court for trial.