Sunshine Week: A Timely Celebration

Sunshine Week, a nationwide event taking place this week (March 12-18), is an annual reminder that access to government information is not something we can take for granted. In fact, prior to July 4, 1967, when the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) took effect, access to federal government information was not a given at all. It took an act of Congress to counteract the tendency of government bureaucrats to over-classify, obfuscate, and procrastinate when it came to making even innocuous information available to the public.

Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 and is now coordinated by that group in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. With these groups heading the effort, it would be easy to think of Sunshine Week as something primarily by and for journalists. Of course having access to public information is of great interest to journalists. That kind of access is essential if the press is to perform its role as a watchdog of government at all levels in this great democracy.

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Global Warming and the Chilling of Free Speech

One of the most important, if underreported, defamation cases in recent memory is being mounted by Prof. Michael Mann.  The creator of the controversial “Hockey Stick” graph, Mann is a leading figure among “global warming” scientists, and the targets of his lawsuit are prominent conservatives – the writer Mark Steyn, National Review magazine, the public policy outfit Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and a person who wrote for a CEI publication.

The gravamen of Mann’s suit is that the defendants defamed him by their published comments.  As an example, CEI stated in its initial blog post that Mann “has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science,” while National Review said that “Mann was the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.”  Mann further argues that the defendants’ global warming skepticism derives from their financial and political interests.

Successful defamation suits, particularly for a “public person” in a place like Washington, D.C., are very hard to win.  In part, this is because the District of Columbia (along with 28 states) has enacted an anti-SLAPP law that is intended to discourage “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” where the goal of the plaintiff isn’t to win but to intimidate and burden  defendants with the cost of their legal defense.

The other reason such suits are hard to win is because of the substantial and vital editorial latitude given the media, courtesy of the First Amendment.  This explains why the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), joined by 18 other media organizations, including such as Politico, the Washington Post, Dow Jones & Co., and the National Press Club, early on filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants.

For what should have been a relatively simple case, quickly yielding a dismissal of Mann’s suit, Mann vs. Steyn, et al., has been dragging on since fall of 2012.  In part, this is because of appeals of earlier procedural rulings, and also because Mann had to file an amended complaint.  Bottom line: It’s not clear even now if the case will get to the trial stage.  In fact it’s not even clear which court will act next in this case – could be the trial court or the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Adding to the confusion is Mark Steyn’s unhappiness with National Review’s legal strategy, such that he has now dropped out of participation with NR’s lawyers, and is currently representing himself.

So this is a snapshot in time of the murky legal case: Considerably less murky, however, is the larger picture – the one that is painted outside the courtroom, and that has implications not just for the plaintiff and defendants in this case, but for everyone who values freedom of speech.

There is perhaps no issue today that is more hotly debated than global warming, and contrary to Mann’s opinion, this debate rages on not because of the ideological or financial interests of some of the skeptics.  The debate rages on because of so many unanswered questions.

There’s been no global warming for at least 15 years.  Why is that?  Some suggest the heat is hiding at the bottom of oceans.  But whether it’s “hiding” there, or in Al Gore’s house, doesn’t that fact, by itself, prove that the computer models said to predict specific warming timelines are unreliable?

Then there are the vital related questions – beyond the expertise of climate scientists – like the economic impacts of global warming, and its prospective amelioration.  What do climate scientists know about engineering, economics, agronomy, or scores of other disciplines of the sort needed to recommend specific energy policies?

Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that Mann and the warming prophets are right: that anthropogenic warming is occurring; that its net results demand action; that we know what that action should be, and that whatever we did would provide societal results that, on balance, were preferable to doing nothing.

In that case, wouldn’t it be a good idea for climate scientists to attempt at all costs to persuade the public and policymakers to their point of view?  Wouldn’t it seem that defamation suits against people who disagree with you is counterproductive?

Whatever the facts of “climate change,” there’s evidence that few people take global warming seriously. Witness, for instance, the recent WSJ/NBC News poll, which found that, of 13 issues people were asked to rank by priority, “addressing climate change” was dead last.

Writing a comment in reply to a predictable global warming rant in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, one reader volunteered this:

It isn’t the big corporations or dissident scientists that are the problem, it’s the pesky public.  They simply don’t believe the climate change bandwagon.

Why?  Well, one of the biggest reasons is the zealotry of climate change supporters. Arguments that should be factual, with room for disagreement, have become intolerant slanging sessions, with insult and invective traded in place of reason. Even the phrase “deniers” is redolent of a religious movement more than scientific debate….

If climate change believers want to win more support, then it’s time to step back from the barricades and engage with the average man on the street.  Win the argument through persuasion, not rant. We’ve all had enough of that.

                                               

Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, and a former assistant publisher of National Review. The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.