Libel Reform campaign now online!

By Phil Plait | December 22, 2009 2:00 am

freespeechI have talked here many times about the atrocious libel laws in England, and how they are used by cranks and crackpots (and others) to clamp down on freedom of speech. Most notably, skeptic Simon Singh is being victimized by the British Chiropractic Association, who decided to sue him rather than actually defend their dodgy claims about their practice.

Simon’s case has started a grassroots campaign to reform the libel law there, and this has gained incredible momentum. The Libel Reform Campaign website was put together by the group Sense About Science to provide information on all this. It has news, affidavits, and much more, all set up to keep you informed on the progress made about this.

Freedom of speech is so important on so many levels, but it’s pertinent to you, BA Bloggees, because you know how pernicious and prevalent quackery is. Many of the people behind such antiscience — the antivaxxers, the chiropracters, and others — would love to see us, the voices of reality, shut off. So go take a look at the Libel Reform page. Sign up, sign the petition, and make sure that your voice will not only be heard, but will continue to be heard.

Comments (20)

  1. Simon Singh

    Thanks Phil – you have been a brilliant, committed and knowledgable supporter of the campaign throughout the year. This is very much appreciated.

    And to anybody reading Phil’s blog, I will repeat Phil’s request and urge you to sign up to the campaign for libel reform. My case has lasted 18 months and will continue for another year at least. Moreover, I am not the only science writer or scientist being sued for libel. Worse still, English libel laws have a chilling effect on writers all over the globe. These laws need radical reform and to achieve this we require signatories from around the world to highlight a problem that is rooted in London. Please visit http://www.libelreform.org/sign

  2. John

    It’s not just alt-med quackery that’s guilty here. General Electric and NMT medical are using the same laws to silence professional critics of their medical practices.

    Either way, it’s about time these laws were revised.

  3. Is there any traction outside of science based institutions for this reform?

  4. Thanks, Phil, for highlighting our campaign. It would be fantastic if your readers from outside the UK were to sign the petition, so we can show our politicians what an embarrassment our libel laws have become.

    In answer to Larian’s question – yes, there is a broad coalition of organisations pushing for reform. It is emphatically not just a campaign for scientists, although the censorship they face probably exposes the stark reality of the situation for most people. The NMT case is particularly troubling, since it relates to the efficacy of some treatments for heart complaints. However, investigative journalists and NGOs are also affected, and even some novellists! Regional newspapers here in the UK do not have the money to defend libel actions either.

  5. John

    Larian,

    Libel is a massive problem for newspapers in this country.

    It raises the interesting question of how individuals can protect themselves from the tabloids if we remove libel laws. I think any change in the law would have to give consideration to those cases where libel gives protection to people who deserve it.

  6. Radwaste

    Here’s an article about this – the Brits are aware of the mess they put themselves in.

    Britain has done a lot of things we can use as examples to avoid.

  7. JM

    does any one know how this libel laws apply when statements are made public through peer-reviewed science journals? I mean, if there is good evidence against wherever you want to denounce, why not use formal methods to do it? Of course I agree that chiropracters, antivaxxers, climategaters and such don’t have any ground to defend themselves, but clearly they know how to use wacky laws to push their interests and agendas…. anyways, those were my 2 cents.

  8. ndt

    John Says:
    December 22nd, 2009 at 5:38 am
    Larian,

    Libel is a massive problem for newspapers in this country.

    It raises the interesting question of how individuals can protect themselves from the tabloids if we remove libel laws.

    This question already has an answer. Just look to the libel laws of any of the other democratic countries and take inspiration from them. England doesn’t have to work in a vacuum here.

  9. Anders

    I was under the impression that the law suit wasn’t because he said homeopathy didn’t work, it was because he said the practitioners knew it didn’t work so they were knowingly perpetrating a fraud.

    To be fair, if this is the case, I don’t have a problem with such laws.

    And let’s not abandon libel laws completely. In the US, it is even fair game to accuse people of committing crimes (climate fraud, presidential murderers etc.) without anyone being able to do anything about it. I actually think it’s ok to not be allowed to accuse others of criminal activity without proof.

    Now, if the suit is actually about saying homeopathy doesn’t work, that’s another story…..

  10. diogenes

    If the Brits want to do something about their libel laws, more power to them. Personally, I see no reason why an average American should be even WANTED on a petition to help them do this any more than an average Brit should be wanted on a petition to reform the American electoral college. (and be VERY careful about counter-arguments saying how internationally important Brit libel law reform is)

  11. Radwaste

    “and be VERY careful about counter-arguments saying how internationally important Brit libel law reform is”

    So read my earlier link. An American author, not even sold in brick/mortar, gets sued for downloads in the UK.

    Say anything recently? I’ll sue!

  12. Jon B

    A certain multi-national fast food chain also took advantage of Britain’s libel laws to shut down protesters who were (gasp!) printing terrible, awful, true things about the nutritional value and growing conditions of the food served there. It worked until the bad PR blew up in the fast food chain’s face and they ceased their actions.

  13. Michael Suttkus, II

    Why not have every scientist who has ever done a study showing Homeopathy to be a joke, sue all the homeopaths? After all, every idiot who claims magic water works is directly accusing all those hard working scientists of lying.

  14. Beryl

    Anders, Singh said, roughly, that chiropractors were pushing “bogus” treatments. The courts chose to interpret that as accusing the chiropractors of *knowing* that their treatments don’t work. Only in a very plaintiff-friendly system does that kind of possible meaning get you in trouble. And English defamation law is a huge international issue, as England has attracted a lot of legal tourism as the most favorable possible venue.

  15. Glen

    The Supreme Court of Canada made rulings today (or yesterday, depending on where you are) that allows “it was in the public interest, and I did my best to check the facts” as a valid argument against libel suits. If only the British courts would do the same, this whole mess could be over in an instant….

    Curiously, one of the rulings said that the Canadian legal system is *more* restrictive than the UK one in this respect.

    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/ottawa/story/2009/12/22/supreme-court-libel-responsible-journalism-citizen-star.html

  16. ndt

    Anders Says:
    December 22nd, 2009 at 11:19 am

    I was under the impression that the law suit wasn’t because he said homeopathy didn’t work, it was because he said the practitioners knew it didn’t work so they were knowingly perpetrating a fraud.

    Your impression is wrong. Where did you hear that?

  17. Anders

    Descriptions around the net from when it happened, and a discussion on Righteous Indignation.

    Beryl corrected my memory though – I was only half right. He is in trouble because he used the word ‘bogus’, and the court chose to interpret that as an accusation of fraud. He is in trouble not for saying homeopathy doesn’t work, but because his words were interpreted strangely.

    This makes sense since Richard Dawkins and many others have said that it doesn’t work on national television, and they’re not getting sued.

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