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England’s libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised - there is an urgent need for reform

30 April 2010

By Sile Lane

Public Liaison, Sense About Science

Appeared in BioNews 556
On 15 April the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) dropped its libel action against the science writer Simon Singh, bringing to an end a case that had cost £200,000 and taken two years of Simon's life. The BCA had sued Simon following an article he wrote in the Guardian newspaper criticising chiropracty for children.

The case highlighted all that is wrong with England's libel laws and led to the launch of a campaign to reform them. Simon's case may be over but, as he himself said: 'I won despite the libel laws, not because of them' - and the need for reform remains.

We need a public interest defence that can protect discussions of science, evidence and research. Freedom to criticise and question strongly, without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. But our current libel laws stop this from happening.

Every month bloggers, journal editors, forum hosts and local newspapers get letters threatening legal action by companies and individuals who do not like what they are printing. But most people and organisations don't have the time and resources to fight such a threat. They back down, apologise and the discussion is lost to the public. Threatening critical voices with the libel laws is a very effective way of silencing them: in a libel action costs are high (defending yourself typically costs £500,000), few defences are available and cases can be brought on the flimsiest of pretexts.

The chilling effect of the laws means that people are not speaking out, even when they know they are right. This is particularly worrying when it comes to subjects such as the activities of clinics offering micronutrient advice to parents of autistic children, or the willingness of researchers to speak out when they think funders are misusing data from a clinical trial. As Fiona Godlee wrote in a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal: 'Weak science sheltered from criticism by officious laws means bad medicine'.

The Libel Reform Campaign, a coalition of three charities - Sense About Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN - has the support of 50,000 people and 50 organisations including Progress Educational Trust and BioNews. All of your passion and support has led to manifesto promises for reform from all the major political parties.

Simon Singh said: 'A year ago, this would have been unthinkable. Campaign supporters can be proud of what we have achieved, but we still need to maintain the pressure on politicians through and after the election, so that manifesto promises are implemented.' That is why we continue to push for reform of the libel laws. We need your help, show your support by adding your name at the link given below and make sure everyone who should know about the campaign does.

Find out more and add your voice at website. For more information on the campaign contact Síle Lane at slane@senseaboutscience.org

SOURCES & REFERENCES

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