DC jury orders conservative commentator to pay $1M for defaming climate scientist

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A Washington, D.C., jury found conservative commentator Mark Steyn guilty of defaming a prominent climate scientist, ordering him to pay $1 million in punitive damages this week.

In a sprawling verdict delivered on Thursday afternoon after a multiweek trial, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia jury determined that Steyn and fellow commentator Rand Simberg defamed scientist Michael Mann, the creator of the famed “hockey stick” graph, more than a decade ago. The jury additionally ordered Simberg to pay Mann $1,000 in punitive damages, and both he and Steyn were ordered to pay just $1 each to Mann in compensatory damages.

“I hope this verdict sends a message that falsely attacking climate scientists is not protected speech,” Mann said in a statement issued after the verdict was delivered late Thursday.

“We consider this a win for the truthful reporting of climate science matters,” Mann’s lawyer John Williams added in an email to Fox News Digital.

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Michael E. Mann is seen outside of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse on February 5, 2024 in Washington, DC. The Mann Vs. National Review Et Al trial continues in District of Columbia Superior Court.

Michael Mann is seen outside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse on Feb. 5 in Washington, D.C. (Pete Kiehart for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The case dates back to 2012 when Mann first filed his lawsuit against Simberg and Steyn. He argued the pair of commentators defamed him in separate posts in which they compared him to Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who had recently been convicted of child molestation.

Years earlier, in 1998, Mann, who remains a University of Pennsylvania climate professor, published a study in the journal Nature showing his “hockey stick” grasp, which showed the Earth warming at a rapid pace. The graph was then used worldwide, including in subsequent United Nations climate reports, to prove that global warming was an increasing threat to humanity.

However, critics, like Steyn and Simberg, have repeatedly cast doubt on Mann’s graph and underlying data. 

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Then, in July 2012, Simberg, then a fellow at the free market think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, published a blog post making the original comparison between Mann and Sandusky. 

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except for instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data,” Simberg wrote in the post.

Mark Steyn is seen outside of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse on February 5, 2024 in Washington, DC. The Mann Vs. National Review Et Al trial continues in District of Columbia Superior Court.

Mark Steyn is seen outside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse on Feb. 5 in Washington, D.C. (Pete Kiehart for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Steyn published a blog post of his own in National Review three days later, referencing Simberg’s article. Though, Steyn appeared to back off Simberg’s original comparison in his article.

“I’m not sure I’d have extended that metaphor all the way into the locker room showers with quite the zeal Mr. Simberg does, but he has a point,” Steyn wrote at the time.

He further identified Mann as “the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus,” in reference to climate science which measures historical temperatures using tree ring analyses.

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The jury on Thursday ultimately found that the two commentators’ posts were defamatory, asserted or implied a provably false fact, had reckless disregard for whether their statements were false and injured Mann as a result.

A photo of the COP28 logo ahead of the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Nov. 30, 2023. The United Nations has heavily relied on Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” graph in its reports on climate change. (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“I have no difficulty standing on the truth,” Steyn said during his opening remarks at the trial last month. “The truth of what I wrote, the truth about what happened at a famous American institution, the truth about this man.”

“In my world, I can write something, Mr. Simberg can write something, and Mr. Mann can write something — and you’re free to read all or none, and decide what weight to attach to all or none. But, in Mr Mann’s world, there’s his take — and everyone else has to be hockey-sticked into submission and silence,” he continued. “He’s a classic example of the guy who can dish it out but can’t take it.”

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Melissa Howes, Steyn’s manager, told Fox New Digital that the punitive damages would have to “face due process scrutiny under U.S. Supreme Court precedent.” She also noted the minimal amount awarded to Mann in compensatory damages.

Steyn, right, argued during the trial that his blog post was protected speech under the First Amendment.

Mark Steyn, right, argued during the trial that his blog post regarding Michael Mann, left, was protected speech under the First Amendment. (Pete Kiehart for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

After the verdict was reached, Amy Mitchell, who writes for Steyn’s online blog, said it was a loss for the First Amendment.

“Putting aside the monetary damages, the real damage done by this case is to every American who still believes in the First Amendment,” Mitchell wrote. “The precedent set today, and as alluded to by Justice Alito when the case was petitioned before the U.S. Supreme Court, means that disagreement and/or criticism of a matter of public policy — the founding principle of this country — is now in doubt. And should you choose to give voice to any dissent, you can brought before a jury, held responsible, and fined.”

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However, Simberg said in a statement that he was ultimately cleared of defaming Mann for “data manipulation” and highlighted the low amount of damages he was ordered to pay.

“I am pleased that the jury found in my favor on half of the statements at issue in this case, including finding my statement that Dr. Mann engaged in data manipulation was not defamation,” Simberg said. “In over a decade of litigation, the sanctions levied against Dr. Mann dwarf the judgment against me.”

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