100,000 against bad libel laws

By Phil Plait | January 27, 2010 12:00 pm

libelreformIf you’re a regular reader, you know that the libel laws in the UK are truly awful. Instead of the burden of proof being on the accuser, as it should be, in the UK the burden is on the accused. So if I decide to sue you for something you wrote about me, it’s up to you to prove there was no malicious intent on your part. And it can cost you literally millions of dollars to defend yourself.

That, to be blunt, sucks. And it’s bad for freedom of expression, because it means that criticism of a claim can be substantially suppressed; who would want to speak out against, say, quacks, if they can sue you and cost you time and money?

And we know this is the case because skeptic Simon Singh is being sued under these draconian laws by the British Chiropractic Association for saying they happily promote "bogus" therapies. I’ve written about this many times.

That’s why I’m asking you to go to The Libel Reform Campaign website and sign their petition. They want 100,000 signatures by tomorrow so they can show it to Jack Straw, a Member of Parliament, and get some action started on this. These laws affect everyone on the planet (if you write something on the Internet, it’s entirely possible to be sued in the UK for it; this is called libel tourism and is a serious issue), so it doesn’t matter if you’re a UK citizen or not.

Please sign the petition. I did. And do it soon, so that we can make an impact on free speech everywhere.

MORE ABOUT: BCA, libel, Simon Singh

Comments (46)

  1. Nick

    This might be ingnorance speaking here – but what if the situation was reversed? If the criticism was going from quack to legit doctor. Would that mean if the doc wanted to sue for libel he would have to pay the bill? Seems like it is lose-lose no matter what. Is that why anti-vaxxers are not currently being sued by the doctors they attack, like Paul Offit?

  2. Will an MP really care about the signature of an American? Sure, I’ll sign, but were I an MP, the first question I’d ask is, “How many of these signatures come from people who can vote for me?”

  3. American publishers have been giving evidence at the UK Government Select Committee in relation to libel, so MPs are very much listening to views from overseas. I think one of the biggest pressures for reform is that England’s reputation for justice is being tarnished by our libel laws. We are attracting Russian oligarchs and Saudi billionaires to sue in London, because these cases would not stand a hope of getting off the ground in America or elsewhere. There are famous cases of American authors and publishers being sued in London (e.g., Rachel Ehrenfeld).

  4. Flavio

    @Nick

    I think a real doctor doesn’t even need to sue for libel: he’s got science and facts on his side. But they’re not proposing to abolish libel law altogether, just to make it more reasonable: http://www.libelreform.org/our-report

  5. Phil, thanks for supporting the campaign. We Brits need support from around the globe to persuade our parliamentarians that English libel laws are out of step with the rest of the democratic world. Science only progresses thanks to robust debate, but English libel laws inhibit such discussion.

  6. North of 49

    Signed. From Canada.

    I think Simon’s right, international pressure is important here. Politicians are used to getting heat from their local media and constituents, and sometimes their own national media if the issue is sexy enough, but when the rest of the world sits up and takes notice, suddenly everything gets more serious. The stakes are higher, the little stage they’ve been used to playing on suddenly balloons to stadium size — with themselves in the spotlight on the centreline — and they start to hunch their shoulders under the pressure of all those eye-tracks on their backs.

    More than that, the local forces who oppose them are heartened and emboldened, and local people who might never have thought about the issue in question before now realize that the Whole, World. Is. Watching.

    Eeek.

    So everybody sign, USA, Commonwealth, everywhere.

  7. Nigel Depledge

    Christopher Ambler (3) said:

    Will an MP really care about the signature of an American? Sure, I’ll sign, but were I an MP, the first question I’d ask is, “How many of these signatures come from people who can vote for me?”

    I guess that largely depends on how much publicity this gets in the UK. If the national papers pick it up, then it is likely to have some influence. But if not, then probably not.

  8. Dave

    Done! Thanks for the link, Phil.

  9. Michelle R

    Done and done. Fight the power!

  10. Nigel Depledge

    The alleged intent of the current laws (IIUC, and, BTW, IANAL) is to protect people from defamation without necessarily having to go to court, i.e. it is supposed to act as a deterrent.

    Clearly, the system is open to abuse.

  11. Jim Shaver

    Yep, Simon Singh and The Libel Reform Campaign group has asked repeatedly for our help, whether we are British or otherwise. Enough said. If you believe in this cause, sign the petition. It’s easy, and it might make a positive difference.

  12. G

    So, antivaxxers as well as fanatics in various other realms DO attack a number of doctors/researchers personally. (For example, as mentioned above, Dr Offit–a vaccine researcher).
    Generally, it looks like as long as all they’re doing is preaching to their followers, the doctors don’t even care enough to dignify it with a response.

    Sure, it’s not very *nice* to go making nasty personal attacks or false accusations. But real scientists have better things to do than worry about the fact that not everyone is a member of their fan club–and real scientists know that their science will stand up for itself, as long as it has the opportunity.

    That’s a lot of the problem with the Simon Singh case; among other issues, the assoc suing for libel tried to claim that it was just a nasty insult rather than a claim backed up by scientific research (though he mentioned the research elsewhere in the same article), and they nearly got away with it–he had to appeal–and the case still hasn’t even been heard! They tried to make the case about that one, single sentence rather than about the article as a whole. The science will stand up for itself–as long as the science can be heard. The convolutions of the libel laws nearly prevented him from being *able* to say, in court, “There is scientific research that supports this position.”

  13. Patricia

    I tried to sign it, but for some reason I couldn’t type in the name and e-mail windows, and the postal code and comments sections were completely blacked out. I’ll try again later on somebody else’s computer, and see if that makes a difference.

  14. Here’s my message:

    “Criticism is a legitimate and important part of public discourse because knowledge is provisional. It’s unfair to expect a criticism to be provably true, because the claim criticized was not held to the same standard when first publicly stated. In the absence of a specific false ad hominem attack, libel law MUST stand aside. Else, it shows unfair favoritism for the first idea that comes along, censoring criticism and halting the discovery of knowledge.”

  15. Charlie

    Signed petition, this is all getting out of hand in UK, hopefully things will change…

  16. I’ve signed a bunch of things for this issue, what will happen if I accidentally sign this twice? I can’t remember if I’ve signed this specific one or not.

  17. The question is, how effective are online petitions?

    http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/petition/internet.asp

    Those who follow PZ Myers know how valid internet polls are; an online petition is not really that much better.

  18. Grimbold
  19. Phillip Helbig (#19) Except I said in the last paragraph that they will be presenting this petition to a Member of Parliament. So this makes this a different situation.

  20. Bahdum (aka Richard)

    Signed and shared on Facebook.

  21. slw

    It wouldn’t make much more sense to have the libel laws the other way around, say for example that a journalist writes that you eat babies; if you sue him for libel then you have to provide evidence that you do in fact not eat babies, in other words, prove a negative.
    The way libel cases would make sense would be to have whichever party has a claim that can be proven with evidence to be required to provide that evidence. In the case of you eating babies, the journalist would need to present for example a photo of you eating a baby. And in the case of Singh, the chiropractors would have to present published studies of their methods working for the ailments they claim.

  22. CrazyGreggy

    For the love of sanity please sign it, even if you’re not a UK citizen. Our govt keeps dragging its heels, avoiding doing anything about it and we’re a laughing stock. It’s come to something when other countries are specifically drafting legislation to give their own citizens immunity from our stupid libel laws.

  23. Eamon

    Signed, though sad to say my MP is abstentionist – so will probably not be supporting the cross-party motion to revise the libel laws.

  24. David

    15696 as of 7pm central…. 100,000 looks a bit iffy.

  25. Robert

    The rule in England just like Australia is, couch your statements. Do not express as fact what you cannot not prove as fact. You are always safe to express your ‘opinion’ regardless of how that ‘opinion’ hurts another (excluding hate speech and threats). Now in both Australia and England, loser pays, so unlike the US where the suit, lawyers and courts costs are the punishment the rich seek against the poor, in other countries when you decide to attack an opinion you didn’t like be prepared to face the full cost, of both litigant and defendant. I believe, those simple two words are powerful enough to fight off any libel claim, it seems, it is likely, or any other choice of words that shift it from being a statement of fact.

  26. Brian Too

    26. slw,

    I don’t think that’s the way it works. AFAIK, libel exists in the civil realm, not the criminal one. Criminal cases have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but civil courts only require a balance of probabilities. This is a much easier standard of proof to reach.

    So even if your example came to court, a lawyer would have an easy time proving that it was unlikely the aggrieved party eats babies. Call 3 witnesses who know the plaintiff and will swear that they would never do that. Call a police officer who will testify that there are no missing babies in the neighborhood. That’s a win in civil court.

    Petition Signed.

  27. signed it bet mentioned straight off that I was not a UK voter, but that the UK libel laws are currently stiffling or killing debate on an international level

  28. El Jefe

    Signed; and forwarded to many collegues…..

  29. StevoR

    Went to sign it then found out I couldn’t – because I already had! ;-)

    Those english libel laws are a very bad and unfunny joke & I hope this petition does something to change them because I agree they very much need to be changed.

  30. Michelle

    I can’t sign, New Zealand isn’t listed in the country dropdown. :(

  31. Mark Sletten

    My comment to accompany my signature:

    Only those who lie at the expense of others fear truth.

  32. mike burkhart

    This is why the Americans rebelled in 1776

  33. “Phillip Helbig (#19) Except I said in the last paragraph that they will be presenting this petition to a Member of Parliament. So this makes this a different situation.”

    True, but that addresses only one aspect of the shortcomings of online petitions mentioned in the URL above. Unless you have a majority of the population (assuming all the “signatures” can be verified), I don’t want to live in a society where anyone with the time, effort and resources to drum up some opinion on the net can influence laws. Such petitions might serve the purpose of pointing out something which might not otherwise be obvious to the lawmakers, but that is as far as it goes—and as far as it should go.

  34. Andy

    While I agree that the libel laws in the UK are complete nonsense, I’m not sure why I should care about “libel tourism.” As a US citizen, I’m not bound by the laws of the UK and they have no authority over me. Sure, they can award in his favor, but I’ll never pay it and will never legally have to.

    I’m not trying to be contrary, I legitimately don’t see the personal problem to me. I’ll still sign, however.

  35. Katharine

    Simon –

    Ever thought about filing countersuit?

  36. Jim Shaver

    Andy (#40):

    Do you ever travel? If you are ever sued for libel in the UK, and a judgement is ruled against you in absentia, would you not be concerned about one day traveling to England, only to be arrested when you step off the plane? Also, I wonder if such a situation could affect your children, should they ever travel abroad. (I don’t know English law any better than I know US law, but the current state of affairs does scare me somewhat, which is, I guess, the intent behind these libel threats in the first place.)

  37. Are there any laws against suing MPs while in office? If not, someone should organize a mass lawsuit-a-palooza against every MP who opposes libel reform. Let them see firsthand what’s involved in defending against the frivolous lawsuits they think is fine for everyone else.

    Sometimes the only way to get rid of a bad law is to enforce it.

  38. Scott

    Wish I could sign, but the site is poorly designed. In Firefox, there is no button or anything else that does a “submit”.

  39. Andy

    Jim (42):

    Yeah, that was the one instance I could think of it being a concern. I’m not much of an international traveler, so that one isn’t so concerning to me.

    Regardless, the bad law needs to go.

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