Court Rules Climate Scientist Can Pursue Defamation Claims Against Critics
Leading climate scientist Michael Mann will see his defamation lawsuit against writers who called him the "Jerry Sandusky of climate science," amongst other accusations, move forward thanks to an appeals court ruling on Thursday.
Mann is the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and is well-known for his iconic "hockey stick" graph of modern global temperature rise.
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"I've faced hostile investigations by politicians, demands for me to be fired from my job, threats against my life and even threats against my family," Mann wrote in the Washington Post.
The case involves articles written by Rand Simberg for the think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute and Mark Steyn for the conservative publication
National Review. Both entities have been critical or reject the science behind climate change and the writers have accused Mann of academic fraud.
On Thursday, a three-judge panel for the DC Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's refusal to dismiss the suit and unanimously ruled that a "reasonable jury" would have "sufficient evidence" that the authors and the entities they worked for published false and defamatory claims about Mann and his work "with actual malice."
"Tarnishing the personal integrity and reputation of a scientist important to one side may be a tactic to gain advantage in a no-holds-barred debate over global warming," Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz wrote in the court's opinion.
Simberg wrote a 2012 blog post for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, comparing Mann to the Penn State football coach accused of molestation.
"Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except for instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in service of politicized science that could have dire consequences for the nation and planet," Simberg wrote. The institute later removed that part, calling it "inappropriate."
In his own post for the National Review, Steyn cited Simberg's article and added that he "has a point" and called Mann's hockey stick graph "fraudulent."
Simberg and Steyn argued that their comments were protected as free speech under the First Amendment,
The Hill reported.
But in the ruling, the court said that while statements made during a "no-holds-barred debate over global warming" are protected under the First Amendment, "if the statements assert or imply false facts that defame the individual, they do not find shelter under the First Amendment simply because they are embedded in a larger policy debate."
Mann said he is "pleased" with the court's decision.
"We are particularly pleased that the court, after performing an independent review of the evidence, found that the allegations against me have been 'definitively discredited,'" he said in a statement. "I am pleased by this unanimous decision of the court and we now look forward to presenting our claims of defamation to a jury."
But in response to the judges' opinion, Steyn wrote: "You won't be surprised to hear that I disagree with their ladyships. The 'sufficient evidence' Dr. Mann has supplied are a series of mendacious claims to have been 'investigated' and 'exonerated' by multiple Anglo-American bodies that did, in fact, do neither."
Defamation or libel lawsuits are notoriously difficult to win because "actual malice" is very difficult to prove in court. After all, there is a fine line between freedom of speech and a person's right to avoid defamation. The DC court's ruling is basically saying that because climate change is real, the writers and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review intended to defame Mann by publishing those articles with reckless regard.
According to Mashable, this is the first time a "climate science researcher can proceed with defamation claims against writers who made false allegations about his scientific work."
Not only that, as Mashable observed, "the case may lay the groundwork for future lawsuits brought by climate scientists and scientists in other hotly contested fields who believe their reputations were damaged by press reports and even organized misinformation campaigns."
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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