February 7, 2014
As an ongoing case in the District of Columbia demonstrates, what other people think about us really does matter, whatever our parents may have said to the contrary when we were schoolchildren. Because each individual’s pursuit of happiness and a livelihood depends, to varying degrees, on the opinion of neighbors and colleagues, our reputations have value, which is why the law protects them against some forms of attack.
What degree of protection? The case I discuss below might surprise you. But first some background:
The First Amendment covers many forms of expression – such as parody, protest, and pornography – but not statements that are false and damaging. Intentionally saying something untruthful and damaging about another person orally (slander) or in permanent form (libel) constitutes defamation.
Most of us understand that there is a permanent, uncomfortable tension between free speech and freedom from harmful speech. We also appreciate that conversing in the public sphere is a civic virtue, even when the conversation turns critical or crude. But we are not always sure about where, exactly, speech slips across the boundary from civil to slanderous, from lawful to libelous. What is the precise location of that line? It shifts, according to the status of the plaintiff and the state of mind of the speaker.
One factor is whether the plaintiff is a public figure as opposed to an ordinary citizen who has not actively sought the spotlight. Public figures suing for defamation carry a heavy burden. They have to prove that the speaker knew that the statements were false or showed reckless disregard for their truth or falsity, a standard known as “actual malice.” Hyperbole and harsh opinions are endemic to meaningful discussion, and in this self-governing republic we prefer our debate heated, not chilled. If public figures do not like the heat they know where to find the kitchen door.
Using lawsuits to go after political opponents for what they have said deters people from participating in public discussion. Strategic lawsuits against public participation (the source of the acronym SLAPP) tend to chill speech so, to prevent such lawsuits, state legislatures across the country have enacted anti-SLAPP statutes. Among those jurisdictions is the District of Columbia, whose anti-SLAPP law requires a court to dismiss any claim that arises from “an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest” unless the plaintiff “demonstrates that the claim is likely to succeed on the merits.” D.C. Code §16-5502.
Together, the “actual malice” requirement and anti-SLAPP statutes place significant hurdles in the path of public figures seeking to silence their critics. So if a public figure – a famous scientist, for example, who had joined the public debate around a controversial policy – came to my office after suffering harsh criticism impugning his integrity and competence and asked whether to sue for defamation, I would probably demur.
On the other hand, if he showed me a stack of published statements describing him as a careless, irresponsible, hypocritical, paranoid conspiracy theorist with a cavalier attitude to data analysis, guilty of planting crimes on other scientists, and whose employers should conduct an investigation of him, I would think again.
Those are the exact terms – including the phrase “planting crimes on others” – various critics have employed to describe Richard Lindzen, the atmospheric physicist who taught at MIT until his retirement last year. As a scientist, albeit retired, Richard Lindzen might wonder whether some of those statements were actionable.
But Richard Lindzen is not the scientist who is suing for defamation. That scientist is Michael E. Mann.
As readers may recall, back in 2009 somebody misappropriated emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit occasioning a scandal of sorts. One of the emails mentioned Michael Mann and referred to one aspect of his work, rather ambiguously, as a “trick.” Professor Mann’s employer, Penn State University, investigated Mann (or, at least, interviewed him) and cleared him of three out of four charges. But a later investigation by the National Science Foundation criticized Penn State for “not adequately review[ing] the allegation” against Mann and for failing to interview critics of his work.
In 2012, writing in the conservative National Review Online, Mark Steyn quoted Rand Simberg’s previously published comment about Professor Mann, comparing Penn State’s investigation of Mann to its investigation of Jerry Sandusky:
“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet.”
Mann sued Simberg, Steyn, and the two entities that published their statements. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss under the D.C. anti-SLAPP statute. The judge denied the motion. That threshold decision means that the case will go forward, with all parties incurring significant legal fees and the defendants facing the risk of a large damages award. Alternatively, the defendants may choose to pay Professor Mann to settle the matter short of trial.
According to the judge, Mann’s defamation claim is “likely to succeed on the merits.” In stating that Mann had “molested and tortured data” Simberg and Steyn did more than express an opinion through rhetorical hyperbole, said the judge. Rather, they made “statements based on provably false facts.” Therefore, the judge reasoned, Professor Mann would likely prevail at trial, meaning the court should deny the writers’ and publishers’ anti-SLAPP motion. The decision is troubling: not because falsely accusing scientists of deceptive practices is right, but because muzzling contrarians is wrong.
When applied to a distinguished scientist and his data, the words “molest” and “torture” may strike some readers as vulgar and others as amusing. Either way, the words are disparaging. Of course, any reasonable reader would understand that Simberg and Steyn were using a metaphor to convey an opinion. Data are not sentient beings, after all. They are capable of being tortured and molested only figuratively, not literally. But clearly the writers meant their statements to denigrate Professor Mann by implying that he had distorted the facts to suit his agenda, an allegation similar to the one Richard Lindzen’s critics throw about.
Does that mean the government, in its role as guarantor of Michael Mann’s reputational interests, should effectively ban them? If Richard Lindzen sued, should the government silence his critics too?
Perhaps climate science is the sole area of study where we already know all there is to know, where we have incontrovertible proof about not only what has already happened but also what will happen. Perhaps, but probably not.
From what I have read, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Earth’s climate is changing and that humans are contributing to that change. Assessments of the climate’s sensitivity and predictions about future global temperatures, however, do not seem quite so clear cut. Still less obvious are the most effective ways to adapt human behavior so as to reduce the risk that the changing climate poses to the species. This aspect of the climate-and-energy policy debate is not an open-and-shut case. Answers will emerge, if at all, through rigorous exchanges in the metaphorical marketplace of ideas.
Free speech begets better policies than censored speech. So when we favor some speech rights at the expense of others, there are trade-offs and real costs. For example, in copyright and trademark law we sacrifice some free speech in exchange for encouraging creativity and preventing consumer confusion. In attempting to strike the right balance courts use use the doctrine of fair use. Similarly, in the realm of reputation, in order to promote robust debate we require that public figures accept a greater degree of uncompensated denigration than private citizens have to endure. In the language of economics, when public figures endure ignominy and absorb its cost, society as a whole acquires a positive externality.
The trade-offs here are considerable. We can hold climate scientists harmless and insulate their reputations even when their predictions serve as the basis for policy decisions that could cause more damage than they prevent. That is the decision the judge made in Professor Mann’s case. We know that Simberg, Steyn, and their publishers are paying a heavy price. But what price will fall on society as a whole?
Simberg and Steyn wrote words that undermined the reputation of a famous scientist. They expressed an opinion that seems to fly in the face of the facts. If the case goes to trial, the central question for the court will be whether their allegations were baseless. But the deeper question for all of us is this: Should the law accord Simberg and Steyn’s speech the same level of protection it gives pornography, or a lower level; as much as flag-burning receives, or not so much; safeguards equal to those it grants the open advocacy of ethnic cleansing, or less than equal?
As we ponder these questions, it is worth bearing in mind whether our answers would be different if the aggrieved scientist was not Michael Mann but Richard LIndzen.