Back in 2012 I wrote about Michael Mann's lawsuit against National Review Online, Mark Steyn, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Rand Simberg. There's been plenty of water under the bridge since then — the defendants have filed and lost a motion under Washington D.C.'s anti-SLAPP statute, appealed unsuccessfully, re-filed it as a result of procedural hijinks too dull to discuss here, and lost again.
My view of the case is unchanged. I think the statements Mann attacks are best viewed as opinions expressed through vivid rhetoric and hyperbole, rather than statements of literal fact susceptible to defamation analysis. That view is strengthened by the steady progress of the law since 2012 in cases like Cox v. Obsidian Finance, which I discussed last month.1 The tone and rhetorical flair of the statements, the places they were published, and their entire tenor strongly suggest they were argumentative opinions rather than falsifiable statements of fact. Therefore, they ought to be absolutely protected by the First Amendment. In this I agree with Jonathan Adler and Dan Farber.
Quite frankly I also think that the lawsuit is part of a larger effort to conduct the climate change debate by other means, including lawfare — part of the effort to label certain viewpoints as so unacceptable that they do not deserve full legal protection. As an example of the tone I am talking about, consider a cartoon in today's New York Times:
Mann's case may still be resolved on the grounds that he's complaining about protected opinions rather than defamatory statements of fact. Moreover, Mann may not be able to prove that the statements were false, or if they were false, that they were uttered with the requisite mental state. I will not dwell on that point; I'm scientifically illiterate.
I will, however, dwell briefly on Mark Steyn's disastrous response.
First, Steyn is representing himself — he characterized it as "firing" the well-qualified firm that was representing him. Such a defense can be ruinously expensive, and I'm sure that cost was one factor, but as you'll see it doesn't appear that it was the only one.
Second, Steyn has used the opportunity of defending himself to engage in what can only be described as pro-se antics. He's attacking the judges and the system both in print and in legally feckless and argumentative court filings. Is it Steyn's First Amendment right to rail against the judges associated with his case? Of course it is. May a pro se litigant file a motion as a vehicle to rant about the case as a whole, and the law, and society, and the universe at large? Sure. But while such behavior is viscerally satisfying, it tends to produce bad results. Judges are human, as are their law clerks.
As readers may have deduced from my absence at National Review Online and my termination of our joint representation, there have been a few differences between me and the rest of the team. The lesson of the last year is that you win a free-speech case not by adopting a don't-rock-the-boat, keep-mum, narrow procedural posture but by fighting it in the open, in the bracing air and cleansing sunlight of truth and justice.
Third, Steyn has now answered Mann's complaint and filed two counterclaims against Mann seeking $10 million. Steyn's answer and counter-claims are here. The counter-claims are, to put it mildly, problematical. Steyn doesn't state clearly what causes of action he is asserting, but his text suggests he is suing Mann for suing him, and for threatening to sue him and others, and for chilling speech by issuing legal threats. There are many problems with this legal theory. Among them: the litigation privilege generally prevents you from suing people for suing you, or for things they say in the lawsuit. The exception is the tort of malicious prosecution, but to sue someone for malicious prosecution you first must show that you won the case. Steyn hasn't won the case, and can't sue for malicious prosecution. (This is exactly why "I'm counter-claiming against you for suing me!!!" is something you generally only see from pro se litigants. It doesn't end well for them.) Moreover, the litigation privilege often covers threats to sue, treating them as part of the litigation as a whole.2
The bottom line is this: Mann's threats and litigation may well be privileged — immune from suit. If that's the case, then Mann may be able to respond to Steyn's counter-claims with an anti-SLAPP motion of his own. He may win, which would not only require Steyn to reach into his pocket for Mann's legal fees, but would hand Mann a huge and dramatic propaganda victory.3 I know California's anti-SLAPPP statute and litigation privilege well, but I am not an expert on District of Columbia law. But my review of the law suggests that Steyn's counter-claims are, at a minimum, a very risky gambit. Perhaps there is some theory behind them with a sound basis in law; perhaps Steyn is getting competent legal advice. But I am skeptical.
Mark Steyn seems very frustrated and impatient with the flaws and delays of the legal system, and how it has failed to dismiss what appears to be a censorious lawsuit attacking opinion. It's not unreasonable to be frustrated and angry. It's not unreasonable to say that our legal system ought not require this priest caste of lawyers to navigate lawsuits attacking our fundamental rights. It's not unreasonable to say that such things are outrageous, and the public ought to know about them. But it is unreasonable to expect to be able to navigate the existing complex legal system without training and experience. It is unreasonable to expect publicly castigating your judges to produce favorable results. It is unreasonable to expect angry pro se behavior to produce something other than angry pro se results. You can argue that things ought to be different. I do. But, in terms of producing a good result in a particular case, such arguments are like quarreling with the barrel of a gun.
I support the defendants, including Steyn, in their defense of Mann's censorious lawsuit. I would donate to a Steyn defense fund. I would, if asked, try to round up pro bono support for Steyn — though he is a much, much bigger fish in this bloggy ocean that I am and ought not need my help. I've supported Steyn's efforts against censors for years. But I can't support what appears to be either a grand mal seizure of self-indulgence or an ill-considered piece of performance art. Steyn's approach to this makes it significantly less likely that this case will produce a result favorable to free speech. That hurts not just him, but his codefendants and everyone who might face a censorious and politically motivated lawsuit. If Steyn's antics help Mann win, censors everywhere will be emboldened. I hope someone with Mark Steyn's ear convinces him to stop treating this as a show trial.
- It would be uncouth to discuss whether the "Batshit Crazy Rule" applies here, or whether the title "National Review Online" conveys argumentative combativeness and negates facts as clearly as "obsidianfinancesucks.com" did, so I will not say those things. ▲
- There's an exception in some jurisdictions for legal threats the threatener had no intent to carry out. But it would be difficult for Steyn to argue simultaneously that Mann is litigious and that he's not litigious. ▲
- I could go into considerable detail and cite cases for the proposition that Steyn's counter-claims are barred by the litigation privilege and therefore subject to an ant-SLAPP motion, but to be very direct, I am disinclined to help Mann. Merely pointing out this risk doesn't help Mann, as any reasonably competent lawyer familiar with the field would spot this issue. ▲