Every side in the political debate has a natural tendency to appeal to freedom of speech when they feel threatened—but to ignore (or initiate) threats to the free speech of the other side. My favorite example is from the early 1990s, when the Yeltsin government dispossessed Russia’s Communist Party of the vast holdings it had amassed in the decades when it controlled the state. The Communist Party screamed in protest, denouncing the supposed attack on its “property rights and freedom of speech.” Which was pretty rich, considering that the Communists had just spent 70 years ruthlessly stamping out everyone else’s property rights and freedom of speech.
This tendency is captured in an old expression popularized by Nat Hentoff: free speech for me, but not for thee.
I was reminded of this in coming across a little sidelight to Mann vs. Steyn, the defamation lawsuit filed by scientist-turned-activist Michael Mann in an attempt to suppress the speech of global warming skeptics, starting with conservative writer Mark Steyn.
As I have explained elsewhere Mann is attempting to legally punish any attempt to “question his intellect and reasoning”—that’s from the DC Superior Court, which preposterously backed his argument—on the grounds that Mann’s scientific claims have been investigated by multiple government panels, which have exonerated him.
This claim, by the way, is already falling apart. As Steven McIntyre explains, one of the examples Mann cites is a British panel that did not actually investigate Mann—its focus was on the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, the epicenter of “Climategate”—and in its announcement of its results criticized Mann’s methods as “inappropriate” and his results as “exaggerated.” At the time, Mann felt so exonerated that he sent harassing e-mails to the scientist who made that remark, demanding a retraction and an apology. Mann then went on to tell the BBC that such a retraction was forthcoming. It wasn’t. All of which tells you a great deal about Professor Mann’s credibility.
But that’s not the main issue. The main issue in the suit is Mann’s appeal to authority in the first place. He cites the various government investigations as reasons why, as the DC Superior Court put it, “to question [Mann’s] intellect and reasoning is tantamount to a [libelous] accusation of fraud.” Mann’s goal is to make it a legally punishable offense to question a scientist’s honesty or even his thinking method.
If you are criticizing Professor Mann, that is. But if he is criticizing you—well, then, that’s a different story.
Mann, it turns out, routinely criticizes his own opponents in the harshest terms. And not just journalists like Steyn. Take Judith Curry, the chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As Curry wrote on her blog:
You would think that someone who is so sensitive about people criticizing or defaming himself, that he would be very careful about defaming and insulting others. Sometimes it seems like Mann spends half his day suing people for defaming him, and then the other half of his day defaming others on Twitter.
I’ve written previously about Mann’s defaming me as a “serial climate misinformer” and “anti-science.” In recent weeks he has gone after Anthony Watts, Patrick Moore (founder of Greenpeace), and Bill Gates….
Mann’s defamation of me (a climate scientist) is of particular relevance in context of Mann’s case against Steyn, in light of the recent ruling:
“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.”
Seems to me that “serial climate misinformer” and “anti-science” qualify as defamatory, and it’s difficult to imagine that the statements were not made with malice.
Indeed, Mann’s recent New York Times op-ed begins with a blanket defamation of anyone who has ever questioned his global warming orthodoxy, people he describes as a “a fringe minority” which “clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science,” promoting a “virulent strain of anti-science.”
So basically, Mann wants a legal guarantee that he can dish it out, but he doesn’t have to take it. What a jerk.
To Judith Curry’s credit, she is not eager to sue.
Many people have urged me to sue Mann; I can’t be bothered and I don’t have money to throw away on such stuff…. Further, I would like to stand up for Michael Mann’s right to make insulting and defamatory tweets, statements in op-eds, etc. As an American, I am pretty attached to the right to free speech.
I appreciate that attitude—but I’m wondering whether filing suit might actually accomplish a great deal more for the cause of free speech. Maybe what we need is precisely Curry vs. Mann.
Mark Steyn notes that the leftists are on to his cunning plan to crowdsource his legal defense to bloggers—which strikes me as an excellent strategy, likely to be both cheaper and more effective than a traditional law firm. So consider this my contribution to that crowdsourced defense of free speech.
Think about what Curry vs. Mann would accomplish. As Curry admits, “I have at least as good a case against Michael Mann for defamation as he has against Steyn.” So this would put Mann is a bind: if he wins against Steyn, he establishes a precedent for his own loss to Curry. If no one can criticize him under the Bill Murray rule—”Back off, man, I’m a scientist”—then he can’t criticize others.
Now, I know that Curry doesn’t want to win against Mann. She doesn’t want to set the precedent that thin-skinned scientists can run around bullying their critics. So she should sue with the goal of making a settlement: that she will drop Curry vs. Mann—if he drops Mann vs. Steyn. It’s a kind of mutually assured destruction for censorship.
Whether she can be prevailed upon or not, Professor Curry’s case highlights the importance of this battle and the need to make sure that free speech is not just for members of the global warming establishment, but also for the rest of us.