Scientist Michael Mann attends the New York screening of the HBO Documentary "How To Let Go Of The World And All The Things Climate Can't Change" in New York on on June 21, 2016. (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for HBO)

Mark Steyn’s Trial Has Important Implications for Freedom of

Iago, Shakespeare’s villain in “Othello,” set a high price on his reputation: “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”

All Iago could do in the 16th century was gnash his teeth. Today, in order to shut up his critics, he could have recourse to a drawn-out, costly defamation lawsuit, in which the process becomes a punishment they aren’t prepared to endure.

The mother of all defamation lawsuits was launched 12 years ago by Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann against defendants Mark Steyn, alpha journalistic gadfly, and policy analyst Rand Simberg, as well as their publishers, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an anti-regulation think tank, and National Review Online. Eventually, various court rulings, setbacks for Mann, left only two defendants, Steyn and Simberg. The long-awaited trial is currently in progress in Washington, D.C.’s Superior Court.

Mann claimed Simberg had defamed him by a comparison with Penn State pedophile football coach Jerry Sandusky in a 2012 blog post (“instead of molesting children, [Mann] has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”); he sued Steyn for quoting Simberg’s words in a post at National Review Online. An inflammatory metaphor, to be sure. The point both were making, though, wasn’t about pedophilia, but a reference to the administration of Penn State’s decision to back Mann’s scientific failings, just as they had covered for Sandusky’s sins. The First Amendment has protected far cruder insults directed at public figures.

Michael Mann is the father of the famous-to-infamous “hockey stick” theory. The theory’s name derives from a graph representing 1,000 years of global temperatures. The flat shaft of the “stick” is allegedly the steady weather of centuries ending abruptly in the stick’s “blade” of sudden, human-induced, steeply-rising temperatures.

This “proxy reconstruction,” published in Nature magazine and Geophysical Research Letters in 1998, was featured prominently in the U.N. IPCC 2001 Third Assessment Climate Report, and thereafter uncritically embraced by the environmental movement, as well as a virtually unanimous mainstream media. It is the foundation stone for the climate alarmism that today governs most Western countries’ hugely consequential economic policies.

Soon after the hockey stick’s publication, mining consultant Stephen McIntyre and environmental economics professor Ross McKitrick determined, in a rigorously objective University of Guelph study, that the hockey stick was “primarily an artifact of poor data handling, obsolete data and incorrect calculation of principal components.” Corrected data showed temperatures in the 20th century to be lower than in the 15th century. At the trial, eminent Wharton statistician Dr. Abraham Wyner has already testified that Mann’s “hockey stick” graphs were produced by “manipulating” data in a “misleading” manner.

While Steyn and Rimberg had the misfortune to be sued by Mann, they are by no means his only serious critics. Mann was a pivotal figure in what came to be known as ClimateGate, a series of shockingly cynical email exchanges amongst elite members of England’s East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU) network. In one frequently cited example, CRU’s director Phil Jones refers to using “[Mann’s] Nature [Journal] trick” to “hide a decline” in temperatures derived from tree rings. An outpouring of response, accusing Mann of bad science practices, forced Penn State to conduct an internal investigation, from which Mann emerged professionally unscathed.

Mann admitted in cross-examination that all his litigation costs had been paid by an unnamed backer. National Review’s legal defence, by contrast, hemorrhaged millions. Mann’s intention, articulated in an email: “Going to talk with some big time libel lawyers to see if there is the potential to bring down this filthy organization [National Review] for good.” Of Steyn himself, Mann emailed a colleague, “One fringe benefit of the lawsuit will be to ruin this odious excuse for a human being.”

In a 2010 case—as it turned out, another setback for Mann—Mann had sued Canadian climatologist and hockey stick dissenter Tim Ball for his allegedly libellous statement that Mann “belongs in the state pen, not Penn State.” In 2019, not only did the B.C. Supreme Court grant Ball’s application for dismissal of the nine-year, multi-million dollar lawsuit, it also awarded full legal costs to Ball, in effect endorsing Ball’s opinion. (Mann never paid the costs. Tim Ball died in 2022.)

Steyn is acting in his own defence at trial. Normally an unwise tactic, he is acquitting himself well, so far performing brilliantly in his opening statement and cross-examination of Mann. The First Amendment imposes a high burden of proof on public figures like Mann in defamation law. But with jury trials, the human factor—who’s considered the more sympathetic actor—can trump legal principles.
Steyn’s penchant for principled iconoclasm first brought him to international attention with his forthright attention to rising Islamism in the West. In 2008, via complaints brought by Muslim law student proxies of the Canadian Islamic Congress, Steyn and Maclean’s magazine were forced to defend themselves in three different Human Rights Commission jurisdictions against charges of “flagrant Islamophobia” for what the three “sock puppets,” as Steyn dubbed them, deemed offensive content: namely, a 2006 Maclean’s excerpt from Steyn’s book, “America Alone,” in which he ponders likely changes to Western society that will result from their Muslim populations’ disproportionate growth rates.

Steyn made some predictions back then. Given the Human Rights Tribunals’ 100 percent conviction rate on “hate speech,” Steyn said he would lose his case, and “be banished from the Canadian media.” He was right, and what a grievous loss to Canadian journalism his absence has been. He also said, “It’s not about who wins the argument. [The sock puppets are] the future of this country, and that’s that.”
Alas, regarding the freedom to criticize Islamism with impunity, that was indeed “that.”

Back in the day, Mark Steyn was known as the “Happy Warrior.” Perhaps less happy today. But a warrior still. Pray he wins, even if you are an atheist. The stakes for all of us are that high.