FEBRUARY 3, 2014
The National Review has held great influence among Republicans and conservative thought leaders for nearly 60 years, but a lawsuit from a climate scientist could threaten its very existence. Michael Mann’s defamation suit against Mark Steyn and the National Review took another step forward last month, with D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg again rejecting a motion to dismiss the suit. At the same time, the conservative writer was parting ways with his legal team and appeared to be splitting from the magazine that his blog post exposed to the lawsuit.
Mann sued Steyn, National Review, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and CEI analyst Randy Simberg in 2012 over what he claims are defamatory articles accusing him of academic fraud and comparing him to a convicted child molester, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The article claimed Mann had “molested and tortured data,” and described Mann’s famous “hockey stick” graph as “fraudulent”. While the law protects pure opinion from being regarded as defamation, multiple judges have now ruled that accusing a scientist of fraud and data manipulation goes beyond that standard, and that Mann’s case can go forward.
Steyn fired the law firm Steptoe & Johnson shortly after authoring a Christmas Eve blog post on National Review Online referring to the suit’s judge, Natalia Combs-Greene’s previous ruling against dismissal as “unbelievably careless” and and doubling-down “on her own stupidity.” Weisberg, who took over upon Combs-Greene’s retirement, made the same decision against dismissal. Steyn told ThinkProgress via email that he felt his lawyers should have pushed back harder against the case’s “procedural fiasco,” which was related to their firing.
“Obviously, I’m giving serious thought to future legal strategy,” he said, “and I certainly don’t rule out hiring someone with a law degree downloaded from an online diploma mill in Kazakhstan.” Without legal representation, Steyn, who is not a lawyer, is currently representing himself.
His post assailing Judge Combs-Greene was his last to date for National Review, after a typically daily posting schedule stretching back several years. Steyn said that while he and the other defendants have interests in common, “we also have points where our interests diverge.”
A victory for Mann in the suit would be hailed by climate scientists as a legitimization of climate change and Mann’s “hockey stick” graph showing spiking global temperatures. If the defendants are found guilty of defamation, it would mean the judge believes the statement that Mann “molested and tortured data” was false and made with “actual malice,” meaning they knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that it was false.
Steyn told ThinkProgress the suit was a free speech issue, indicating Mann was trying to silence those who don’t believe the reality of climate change with serial lawsuits.
And National Review’s interest could be fighting for its continued existence. As Damon Linker first noted in The Week, it’s unlikely the magazine could afford a payout, or even a protracted legal battle. Until recently, National Review Online was displaying an appeal for contributions to a legal defense fund for Mann’s lawsuit. As Steyn said, the defendants had already lost, by having to spend 15 months of time and money on the case. But he didn’t see the magazine’s demise as likely. “In a turbulent world, a lot of things could potentially doom National Review,” he said, “but this frivolous suit won’t be one of them.”