Nov 11 2010

English Libel Reform

We are in the midst of a public push for libel reform in England. (I know there is a difference between England and the UK. Apparently it is the English libel laws that are the major problem, but still the issue is often presented as reforming UK libel laws, which I guess would subsume the English laws.) This issue came most prominently to light over the British Chiropractic Association’s libel suit against Simon Singh. Simon rode that costly trial through and eventually the BCA withdrew and will have to pay Simon’s legal costs.

The episode helped fuel a libel reform campaign – a grassroots campaign to keep the political pressure on for reform. This is one of those issues that will only change with constant public pressure – and you can help. Add your signature to the petition here: http://libelreform.org/

This is an issue of free speech. While everyone deserves the right to defend their reputation from malicious attack, there needs to be a proper balance to also protect public discourse and free speech. In England the libel laws are simply broken. It is ruinously expensive to defend even a frivolous libel suit, so the threat of suit can be used to silence critics and stifle debate.

David Colquhoun on his Improbable Science blog today presents some recent examples of much needed scientific criticism being silenced by bullying libel suits.

The issue is especially relevant to science bloggers, even those outside the UK. Libel suits can be brought against American citizens in English court (so-called libel tourism). Science especially needs honest and frank criticism – transparent criticism is a healthy and even necessary component of the scientific process. As readers of this blog know, there is a great deal of bad science and pseudoscience out there, and the “take no prisoners” criticism of science is much needed to combat this pseudoscience in the public domain. It is precisely this public criticism of bad science that is threatened by unbalanced libel laws.

Often the targets of sharp criticism are interested mainly in protecting their profits. This may be a legitimate company in which scientific research did not go their way, and now they wish to protect their profits from the evidence. But also there are many con artists and charlatans out there, and they react the most violently to criticism – the bigger the lie the more indignant one must seem when called on it. Further – they are con artists, so they have no moral compunction against abusing libel laws to bully their critics and protect their profit stream.

When the claims of honest scientists are attacked they defend themselves with evidence. When the claims of charlatans are attacked they defend themselves with personal attacks and threat of suit. The libel laws exist to protect people from malicious attacks against their reputations. They are necessary, but they are also easily abused. I think the US generally has a good balance between protecting individual reputations and protecting free speech and public discourse. Meanwhile English libel laws are an international disgrace and menace to free speech.

I urge you to sign the petition (http://libelreform.org/) – the campaign is making progress but we have not yet achieved critical mass sufficient to overcome the political hurdles.

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