Over the weekend Planet3.0 reported that the Heartland Institute was threatening to sue anyone who commented on the leaked documents.
Joseph Bast the president of the Heartland Institute has this to say about these threats “We realize this will be portrayed by some as a heavy-handed threat to free speech. But the First Amendment doesn’t protect Internet fraud, and there is no right to defamatory speech.”
Of course the Heartland Institute didn’t feel this way when it was busy defaming scientists after the CRU email hack, but that hypocrisy isn’t the story here.
As discussed last time, there isn’t much basis for these threats (though I am not a lawyers so this is not legal advice), but a nasty letter from a lawyer can in many cases be enough to scare bloggers who don’t have a lawyer or two on retainer into compliance. These strong arm tactics even have an appropriate name: SLAPP or strategic lawsuit against public participation.
Reporting on documents that were illegally obtained is legitimate and fully legal. That is why major newspapers like the New York Times (who no doubt consulted with their lawyers) not only reported on the leaked diplomatic cables but even collaborated with Wikileaks. It is also why many news outlets reported on the illegally obtained CRU emails without fear of lawsuits.
Of course it remains to be seen if Heartland will follow through with these threats or if the letters are nothing more than a scare tactic.
However there is another twist to the story. While reporting on these documents is perfectly legal, obtaining them was not.
And we now know who obtained the documents. It was Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and the co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute.
This is what he said on his blog at the Huffington Post:
At the beginning of 2012, I received an anonymous document in the mail describing what appeared to be details of the Heartland Institute’s climate program strategy. It contained information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy. I do not know the source of that original document but assumed it was sent to me because of my past exchanges with Heartland and because I was named in it.
Given the potential impact however, I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name. The materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget. I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues. I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public. I made no changes or alterations of any kind to any of the Heartland Institute documents or to the original anonymous communication.
I will not comment on the substance or implications of the materials; others have and are doing so. I only note that the scientific understanding of the reality and risks of climate change is strong, compelling, and increasingly disturbing, and a rational public debate is desperately needed. My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected.
This doesn’t answer the question of where the supposedly fake memo came from, and we should not point accusatory fingers without solid evidence.
The memo may not even be fake. We only have Heartland’s word that the memo is a fake, and they have done nothing to earn my trust and plenty to earn my distrust. But that doesn’t mean they are lying, only that we don’t know and likely never will.
I have little doubt that Heartland will send as many lawyers as they can after Peter Gleick. He genuinely erred and perhaps even broke the law. I even have some sympathy for Heartland and they have every right to go after Gleick. After all if the CRU email hacker is ever caught I would support strong legal action against him.
What is really unfortunate is that this whole episode seems likely to take the public discourse even further away from the scientific realities of climate change, and this is exactly what we don’t need. As Andy Revkin writes:
The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the “rational public debate” that he wrote — correctly — is so desperately needed.
Expect the usual suspects to use this episode to defame the entire climate community. But some bad decisions by one scientist, who was obviously very frustrated by the way Heartland and others have acted in the climate debate, shouldn’t matter very much. Nothing in this indecent says anything about the science of climate change. It remains as strong as ever.
But there is a potential upside to all of this. For a very long time now the climate community has been asking journalists to explore the inner workings to groups like the Heartland Institute and for years very little reporting on such groups has occurred. The documents Gleick obtained have uncovered more information about Heartland’s operations than journalists have ever uncovered. This combined with the recent investigations by John Mashey has forced journalists to take a look at how Heartland operates, but these documents only reveal a glimpse.
Hopefully this incident will spark a long overdue interest by journalists and others to look deeper into the inner workings of Heartland and other ‘think tanks’, because it is well past time they received real scrutiny.