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Environment & Energy Report

SCOTUS Passes on Conservatives’ Feud with Climate Scientist (2)

Nov. 25, 2019, 2:36 PMUpdated: Nov. 25, 2019, 3:47 PM

The Supreme Court won’t step into a legal dispute between a prominent climate scientist and a pair of conservative organizations that questioned his work and compared him to a convicted child molester.

The justices on Nov. 25 declined to review an appeal from the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review, which want to stop climate scientist Michael E. Mann from pursuing defamation claims against them. Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the denial.

Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, sued after CEI published a column, partially reprinted by the National Review, that took aim at his research and likened him to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, “except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data.”

A local court in Washington, D.C., allowed Mann to pursue his case. CEI and the National Review say their statements are protected by the First Amendment.

Alito’s Dissent

Alito said the case “presents questions that go to the very heart of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

“If the Court is serious about protecting freedom of expression, we should grant review,” he wrote.

Alito said the justices should have taken the opportunity to address important legal issues, including which standard to use when judging whether certain speech is defamatory, and whether someone can be found liable “for expressing a subjective opinion about a matter of scientific or political controversy.”

“Politicians, journalists, academics, and ordinary Americans discuss and debate various aspects of climate change daily—its causes, extent, urgency, consequences, and the appropriate policies for addressing it,” he wrote. “The core purpose of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression is to ensure that all opinions on such issues have a chance to be heard and considered.”

Alito added that he’s not taking a position on the particular language at issue in the Mann case.

Next Steps

Mann praised the Supreme Court’s refusal to get involved in the case.

“We are pleased with this nearly unanimous decision by the Supreme Court to deny the appeal” in the defamation case, he said in an email. “We are looking forward to the trial.”

A lawyer for the National Review didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Sam Kazman, general counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said his group is focused on the next stage of the underlying litigation, which is still moving forward in the local-level Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

“While we are disappointed that the Supreme Court declined to take our case, we look forward to proving our claims at the trial level,” he said in a statement.

The proceedings are currently in the discovery phase, with both sides collecting documents to support their arguments.

The Supreme Court petition is Competitive Enter. Inst. v. Mann, U.S., No. 18-1477, cert. denied 11/25/19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com