If the defamation lawsuit against writer Mark Steyn keeps chugging forward toward the courtroom, grab the popcorn. It may be among the most crucial First Amendment cases to affect freedom of speech for decades to come. Not to mention entertaining as hell.
Steyn comes to Washington Tuesday for a hearing at the D.C. Court of Appeals. Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, filed the lawsuit against Steyn, National Review, space policy and tech analyst Rand Simberg and the Libertarian-bent Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in 2012.
All parties have lawyered up. They all have different legal representation with the exception of Simberg, who is clumped in with CEI.
In a 270-word blog post published in July of 2012 for National Review, Steyn called Mann’s “hockey stick” theory about climate “fraudulent.” According to Steyn, Mann’s theory is the “single most influential image” in “Big Climate alarmism.” He also quoted Simberg, who called Mann “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science.” Mann threatened to sue if Steyn and National Review didn’t remove the post. They didn’t, and here we are — headed to court in the morning.
Steyn is coming to the hearing as a “friend of the court.” He says, “I am the least friendly friend of the court they will ever see [as I figure out] how to get back with my family to eat turkey.”
In an amicus brief “in support of neither party,” Steyn spells out his views. He cracks on Mann repeatedly for lying in his court filings. “The audacity of the falsehoods in Mann’s court pleadings is breathtaking,” states the brief. One sticky point he brings up repeatedly is Mann’s claim to be a Nobel Prize winner: “It is deeply disturbing that a plaintiff should make such fraudulent claims in his legal pleadings. It is even more disturbing that the first such fraudulent claim — to be a Nobel Laureate and thus in the pantheon of Banting, Einstein and Curies — should have led to the amended complaint and procedural delays that then followed.”
He urged the court to act swiftly: “Mark Steyn brings this brief in support of neither affirmance or reversal, but instead in support of an expeditious ruling on the matter.”
Steyn joked there’s nothing more convenient than a court “shedduling” an appearance two days before Thanksgiving. “That’s incredibly helpful,” he told The Mirror through a sometimes impossibly thick British accent in a phone interview from New Hampshire, where he lives. He said he resides 20 miles south of the Quebec border “because you never know when you’ll have to flee in a hurry.”
Let’s be clear: Steyn is not fleeing. He wants a trial. His legal team is headed up by the Yale bred Dan Kornstein.
Steyn insists Mann is waiting out the clock so that everyone he’s suing will be good and broke if they ever get remotely near the prospect of a trial. The journalist, however, is plowing ahead, raising money and prepping himself for a trial he’s dying to see happen.
The case is already on its second judge — the first one applied for “senior status” (meaning she’ll work part time and get full pay) and was accepted. The second, says Steyn, seems to be more on top of things, but has been unable to restore a timely process.
Which frankly pisses Steyn off.
“This is what is so appalling about it,” said the journalist, who makes endless fun of the American legal system in a routine better fit for open mic night at a comedy club: “If this guy Dr. Mann feels he’s being defamed then he should, like Oscar Wilde, get in court and have the manner settled. There is no right to a speedy trial…but you know, defamation is serious and more injurious to one’s reputation than bouncing a check for $30 at the general store. It’s more injurious than a parking ticket, than doing 45 in a 30 mile speed limit. [There’s the right to a speedy trial], but not for defamation. Nuts to that.”
Steyn is exceedingly polite about the fact that he no longer shares the same lawyers as National Review.
“The previous lawyers and I parted company,” he said. “I now have a guy who’s a real free speech warrior who has had great consequential impact on American cases and English libel law.”
Before securing his current lawyer, Steyn announced that he’d represent himself — something he laughs at now.
“I enjoy the show biz elements of self-representation,” he said. “I don’t deny that, that’s very appealing.”
But he’s opted for lawyers — and not just any lawyer. “I thought very carefully about the new lawyers I wanted,” he said, later adding, “I am represented by counsel, but I don’t entirely rule out cross-examining Michael Mann for the sheer entertainment value. I have to think of the movie deal down the road.”
So what will go down in court Tuesday? When I ask, Steyn replies, “Please feel free to stab something into your eyeballs while I explain, because that’s the effect it has on me,” he says.
What’s happening is that the court must decide if D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law is appealable. Essentially the court proceedings so far have been a legal clusterfuck the proportions of which will be hard to detangle. “It’s the latest state in the eyeball stabbing procedural torture of this system,” he says, explaining that it could take up to a year a half for the judge to reach a decision.
What Steyn despises most about American legal system is all the “proceduralism” that goes on here.
“If you’re sued for 20 million, the thing to do is agree to 4 million,” he said, resuming his comedy riff. “I like guilty, not guilty and that’s the only thing I’m interested in. That’s one reason I countersued because his whole plan — he’s drained some poor professor up in Canada his life savings. The point is why you get the result. You’re broke, exhausted and your life is ruined. I thought it was time to apply the heat to him, which is why I am countersuing. I am happy to trust it to 12 good men or women.”
Steyn has frustrations about the case. In his own battle with Mann, in which he countersued him and Mann filed an anti-SLAPP suit right back, Steyn says he’s turned over an exhaustive list of discovery materials that Mann had requested, but Mann hasn’t reciprocated and legally doesn’t have to. Technically Steyn didn’t necessarily have to provide all the discovery materials, but did so anyhow and says he may one day turn the whole thing into a book to show everyone how absurd it is.
“I’m ready to go to court, says Steyn. “I’m ready to be staggering around, saying ‘objection’ and testifying to the jury and the rest of it. I’ve seen Law & Order and it’s all wrapped up in 50 minutes. No one would tell you in real life it takes seven years. I want my Law & Order episode. I don’t like having a decade of my life taken away for this test case. I want him to put up or shut up.”
The journalist actually prefers dueling to the sludge of court. “I’m tired of this phony pseudo legal action’ he says. “I’m in favor of reintroducing dueling, like Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. I think this system is ridiculous. He’s a political figure. He appeared in the campaign ads for Terry McAuliffe for his race for the governor of of Virginia.”
And with that, he compared Mann’s climate stance to Islam.
On a more serious note, should Mann win the case, Steyn says the toll would be significant. “Were he to win,” he says matter-of-factly, “Americans would be left with fewer speech rights than you have in England, Australia and Canada.”
The journalist is ready to fight, but he’s aware that high legal fees could one day break his bank.
“Let me put it this way,” he says. “At a certain point, if it goes on for several more years, if it comes to my children being able to enjoy the $60,000 cost of being able to enjoy transgender studies at a prestigious college or sleeping with me under a bridge, I will reconsider.”
In the meantime, he’s found his own unique way of funding his case. “I’ve been flogging my book harder than I would do, and we’ve been selling T-shirts,” he says, explaining how he can afford to proceed without settling. “The process is the punishment. The whole point is to make you empty out your 401K, the shoebox upstairs and your granny’s jewelry.”
He’s selling mugs, CD’s and the aforementioned books and T-shirts to fund this extremely pricy endeavor. Buy them in The Steyn Store here.
But more than anything, Steyn wants Mann to answer questions on the stand. He pokes fun at him for having a Twitter interview called “Ask Dr. Mann Anything,” and yet he blocks people and won’t debate anyone who, much like Steyn, disagrees with him.
“I’m not interested in being in the choked toilet of the D.C. Superior Court for the next decade,” he said. “I find it strange that for a 200-word blog post you’re tied up in court for 5 years.”
But there’s no denying that a victory would be sweet.
“I’m interested in winning and making sure Michael Mann mans up and realizes if you don’t like what people say about you, that you win in the court of public opinion, which is what real men do,” he said.