In a blow to free speech and a free press, the U.S. Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear an appeal of a District of Columbia court decision that permitted a climate scientist to pursue a defamation action against his critics.
The Supreme Court allowed Penn State University professor Michael Mann to move his case forward despite a strongly-worded dissenting opinion by Justice Samuel Alito. Mann, a leading proponent of anthropogenic climate change, alleges his critics falsely and unfairly questioned his research methods and conclusions.
In his dissent over the denial of Supreme Court review, Alito emphasized the dangers of allowing claims like Mann’s to move forward.
“Political debate frequently involves claims and counterclaims about the validity of academic studies, and today it is something of an understatement to say that our public discourse is often ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,’” Alito wrote. He added:
To ensure that our democracy is preserved and is permitted to flourish, this Court must closely scrutinize any restrictions on the statements that can be made on important public policy issues. Otherwise, such restrictions can easily be used to silence the expression of unpopular views.
Mann’s lawsuit will now move on to what undoubtedly will be a lengthy and expensive discovery process, and the strong possibility of a trial. Alito noted the dangers this poses for the press:
A journalist who prevails after a trial in a defamation case will still have been required to shoulder all the burdens of difficult litigation and may be faced with hefty attorney’s fees. Those prospects may deter the uninhibited expression of views that would contribute to healthy public debate.
The Campaign for Free Speech will continue to monitor further developments.