by Emily Atkin
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Climate scientist Andrew Weaver recently won a libel case against the National Post. It's the first time a Canadian court ruled that online publication can be held liable for how readers react to their stories in the comments section.
Published: February 10, 2015
A prominent Canadian climatologist won his libel lawsuit against The National Post on Friday, after a judge decided that the newspaper had published several articles that were both inaccurate and defamatory to his character.
British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Emily Burke said that Dr. Andrew Weaver should be awarded $50,000 in damages from the Post, which she said unfairly diminished Weaver’s credibility as a climate scientist by publishing articles that falsely painted Weaver as incompetent. The articles claimed that Weaver, a former member of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was “untrustworthy, unscientific and incompetent; and that he distorts and conceals scientific data to promote a public agenda and receive government funding.”
The decision did not touch on the accuracy of climate science itself, instead focusing on statements the Post and its columnists repeatedly made about Weaver — such as claims that he was attempting to distract the public from a (now-discredited) scandal involving climate scientists e-mails; that Weaver was a government employee; that he wanted the head of the IPCC to step down; and that he used data despite knowing it was “unadulterated rubbish.” Justice Burke found that those statements were either untrue or misleading.
In fact, the opinion defended the Post’s right to be skeptical of climate science, but said the Post was not being honest in its skepticism. “While certainly entitled to express those views, in this case as part of that expression, they deliberately created a negative impression of Dr. Weaver,” Burke wrote. “In doing so, I conclude the defendants have been careless or indifferent to the accuracy of the facts.”
This designation is important because it shows the nature of these types of lawsuits. When a climate scientist sues a news publication over defamation, the lawsuit is generally not about the science itself. Instead, it is about whether the publication’s words and statements defame the scientists’ character. Take Michael Mann’s lawsuit against the conservative National Review: it’s not about the legitimacy of his much-debated “hockey stick” graph, it’s about the fact that the news site compared him to a convicted child molester while criticizing that graph. Comparatively, Weaver’s lawsuit is also not about climate science, it’s about the Post’s repeated and unfounded assertions that Weaver is an inherently dishonest man.
So how can scientists — or any plaintiff in a defamation case, for that matter — prove that their character has been defamed? In Weaver’s case, he pointed to the comments section of the Post’s site. In testimony to the court, he called them “crushing” — “people claimed he was a fraud; a liar; many people attacked him in phone, in shows. He did not know what to do to defend himself. All of this was based on a complete fabrication of facts,” Justice Burke wrote.
The court’s opinion even excerpted some of the comments, including this one: “Dr. Weaver is as big a hypocrite as he is a fraudster. He was front and center with his “global warming” lies and deception and should be made to repay his research monies and lose his tenure and degrees. A few centuries in jail would give him time to reflect on his part in the biggest fraud in the history of mankind. Perhaps he would settle for a 100-year sentence by giving evidence against his fellow fraudsters?”
Weaver claims he got so many negative comments that he created a “Wall of Hate” outside his office, where he posted copies of diatribes against him since 2010.
Though it doesn’t seem to have been addressed in U.S. courts yet, Weaver’s case was the first in Canada to opine on whether an online publication can be held liable for how readers react to their stories in the comments section, according to the Toronto Star. Though Justice Burke apparently accepted the Post’s argument that it removed vitriolic comments from its site, it did seem to factor into her decision to deem them defamatory. The Post had argued that they did not attack Weaver’s character.
“Dr. Weaver testified he no longer checks the reader comments as they are too disturbing,” Justice Burke wrote.
According to the Star, the Post’s lawyer Daniel Burnett said it is still “too early” to say if the paper will appeal.