We believe in free speech here, but we also believe it has limits. One of those limits is the idea that what one says should actually be at least believed to be true, or have some facts to back it up.
The same can't be said for some conservatives, including the bombastic and always-angry Mark Steyn, and it looks like he may have stepped in it this time when he slammed climate researcher Michael Mann. At the very least, a defamation lawsuit he thought would die an early death is still moving through the courts.
Steyn, as well as the magazine he writes for, are being sued by influential climate scientist Michael Mann for defamation. Mann took issue with a piece by Steyn in which the columnist accused Mann of fraud and approvingly quoted another right-wing writer, who wrote that Mann was “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data.”
Usually, defamation is a charge that’s notoriously hard to make stick in the American legal system. So National Review’s initial response to Mann’s suit was to shrug it off and decline to apologize. But now that Mann’s suit has gone to court, things are looking considerably different. Two separate judges have disagreed with National Review’s argument that Mann’s suit should be dismissed — and now the discovery phase is set to begin.
Mann was targeted after his email was hacked and published by climate deniers. Right-wingers attacked a study he did proving climate change was real, and for a time managed to demonize Mann as an academic crackpot with no respect for "real science."
Ultimately, Mann was exonerated by two independent research studies, one of which was hostile to climate change altogether, yet still arrived at Mann's conclusions.
That hasn't stopped Mark Steyn.
Damon Linker at Time:
The lawsuit has not been going well for the magazine. In July, Judge Natalia Combs Greene rejected a motion to dismiss the suit. The defendants appealed, and last week D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg rejected the motion again, opening the door for the discovery phase of the lawsuit to begin.↓ Story continues below ↓
That's not all. On Christmas Eve, Steyn (who regularly guest hosts Rush Limbaugh's radio show) wrote a blog post in which he excoriated Greene, accusing her of incompetence, stupidity, and obtuseness. As a result of this outburst, the law firm that had been representing National Reviewand Steyn (Steptoe & Johnson) has dropped Steyn as a client and reportedly has plans to withdraw as counsel for the magazine as well. (Now representing himself in the lawsuit, non-lawyer Steyn continues on the attack here and here.)
[Update: National Review publisher Jack Fowler says that it was Mark Steyn who initiated the break with the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson, not the other way around.]
In his ruling, Judge Weisberg was pretty clear about where free speech ends and defamation begins:
Accusing a scientist of conducting his research fraudulently, manipulating his data to achieve a predetermined or political outcome, or purposefully distorting the scientific truth are factual allegations. They go to the heart of scientific integrity. They can be proven true or false. If false, they are defamatory. If made with actual malice, they are actionable.
Indeed. Other lawsuits are pending in the courts at this time as well against other conservative publications who have engaged in self-indulgent, spurious, and untrue claims. I'm pretty sure, for example, that if a group of right wing bloggers decide to stir up a blog storm by saying someone is a pedophile without evidence of that accusation, a judge might also view that as actionable, particularly when they used that storm to raise money for their cause. Those defendants have also taken Steyn's tack of slamming judges in blog posts and claiming some kind of holy exemption.
Watch this space.