SPEECH Act now a law: big win for libel reform!

By Phil Plait | August 26, 2010 12:30 pm

libelreformAmerican authors, journalists, and bloggers can breathe a sigh of relief: with broad bipartisan support, a short time ago President Obama signed a bill into law that makes sure that the awful and regressive libel laws in the UK cannot be enforced here in the United States.

I’ve written about this issue many times; skeptic and journalist Simon Singh was sued for libel by a UK chiropractors group for saying they "happily promote bogus remedies". In the UK, when sued, you have to prove the claim is false, the opposite of the way it works in most of the rest of the world, including the US. It should be up to the prosecution to prove the claim is true. So in the UK this puts undue burden on the person accused, an almost guilty-until-proven-innocent situation.

This has engendered a process called "libel tourism", where people will sue in the UK no matter where the defendant might live. For example, if I made some claim that chiropractors practice bogus remedies, them suing me in the US would be difficult. But in the UK, it would be far easier, so they would sue me there. I would have to spend thousands of dollars, perhaps hundreds of thousands, defending myself, as Simon Singh had to when he was sued.

This new law prevents that. If someone tried to sue me in the UK, they wouldn’t be able to get traction here in the States. The new law, with the (awful) name "Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage", or SPEECH, broadly protects the free speech rights of Americans. It’s another step in the process of getting the UK government to reform their libel laws.

You can find out more about the tireless fight by Simon Singh and the group Sense About Science at the Libel Reform website. Also, Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN), who authored the bill, talked about it on the House floor when it was up for a vote. He describes the bill — now law! — in detail:

Sometimes, our government gets it right.

Tip o’ the to Christopher Ferro and Dave Lane.

Comments (66)

  1. Miko

    Sometimes, our government gets it right?

    Seeing as it’s just fixing a problem that it created in the first place (by passing the original flawed libel laws), this hardly seems like a triumph of government. It’s more like heralding a surgeon who amputates the wrong limb, but later realizes the mistake and amputates the correct limb too.

  2. I think that, in addition to speech writers, we need a Department of Acronyms, with official acronym writers.

    Miko — How is U.S. government responsible for Britain’s libel laws? (Note: I haven’t seen the video yet. Perhaps I missed something?)

  3. Miko, our government didn’t pass the original flawed libel laws, the UK government did.

  4. kris

    Wow, first comment and someone already completely misinterpreted the issue at hand. Bravo, Miko. Bravo.

  5. Buzz Mega

    The Brits have been ignoring US Constitutional principles since day 1. With malice aforethought.

  6. Buzz Mega:

    The Brits have been ignoring US Constitutional principles since day 1.

    I think they’re still holding a grudge.

  7. So does this prove that Obama is a Socialist or a Muslim?

    It’s amazing how this is getting virtually no coverage in the MSM in the U.S.

  8. Its nice to have something good happen.

  9. John Baxter

    “…Department of Acronyms…”

    A friend was doing his MIT Coop program work semesters at Naval Research Laboratories. When folks there were asked to name an upcoming (and hopefully upgoing, although I don’t know whether it ever flew) satellite in the late 1950s, he proposed Celestial High Altiude Orbiting Satelite. That was favored by many, but unfortunately on its way up the chain it hit an admiral (or more likely an aide to an admiral) who noticed the acronym.

    A different name was used.

    (Later, after my friend went to NRL full time, the director told a congressional committee that landing him for the lab justified all the funds spent on all their coop students.)

    –John

  10. Batgirl

    The difficulty with libel situations is that no matter which way the system leans, one side is always placed in the ‘guilty-until-proven-innocent’ position. So this is not a triumph over that principle, it just leaves those *being* libeled in the position of being broadly assumed guilty until proven innocent. I would have been more impressed if the writer had acknowledged that both sides have ethical merit and simply stood by theirs as their ‘this is the BETTER’ way, rather than oversimplifying and dismissing the counterpoint.

  11. Owen

    That’s great!

    By the way, did you see that the lawsuit against the LHC was dismissed? You can see an article about it here http://networkedblogs.com/7erBW

    Also, I thought that you might like this video from my friendly rivals at CERN … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28X9czEROPs

  12. Bravo. Now if only we could exclude unreliable evidence and eliminate the death penalty.

    It’s notable that this was apparently a real bipartisan effort. There apparently wasn’t any way this could be spun to make it look like a bad idea.

    Though maybe we shouldn’t have expected it to be spun. Admittedly, the idea came from Obama in the first place and that should usually draw the standard response from the “Party of No.” On the other hand, Fox News and its contributors are serial libelers, and this law protects them as well as the innocent.

    It troubles me that this is getting no coverage at all in the mainstream media. This is not just a bloggers’ issue.

  13. Chris

    Miko, the United States of America has not been part of the United Kingdom for over two centuries.

    While visiting the Legislative Assembly Building in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada last week we saw a painting of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (it is a lovely building, and beautifully lit at night). You will not see similar portraits in any legislative building in the USA.

  14. BigJ

    “Now if only we could exclude unreliable evidence and eliminate the death penalty.”

    But aren’t those the basic principles of the American justice system?

  15. Robert

    So, bipartisan suport for a sensible law in an election year.

    The whackos on both sides will count it as voting with the enemy.

  16. BJN

    I can see how Simon Singh would have to defend himself in the UK since he’s a UK citizen. How often have US citizens been sued for libel in UK courts, and what’s the extradition record? I applaud the SPEAK legislation, I’m just unclear on whether it’s prophylactic or not.

    I can’t see the “one world government” phobes on the right not supporting a bill that puts US constitutional law first, even if it’s that nasty First Amendment and not the “divinely inspired” Second.

  17. Chris

    BJN, see the webpage dub dub dub dot libelreform dot org/who-is-silenced.

    Among the Americans listed are Vladimir Mastusevitch, Forbes magazine, Rachel Ehrenfeld, the Human Rights Watch group, and the Wall Street Journal.

  18. Nikki B

    JediBear: “It’s notable that this was apparently a real bipartisan effort. There apparently wasn’t any way this could be spun to make it look like a bad idea. … It troubles me that this is getting no coverage at all in the mainstream media.”

    The fact that there isn’t any way it can be spun to make it look like a bad idea is precisely the reason it’s NOT getting any coverage in the mainstream media.

    I don’t watch TV for a reason.

  19. There’s lots needs to be changed in UK libel law, but the most insidious, in my mind, is the fact that an internet post is considered to be published afresh every time someone reads it. Which is complete bollocks!

  20. fake

    @BJN: UK courts claim jurisdiction in libel cases if a UK citizen could read it. You can post a magazine article to someone in the UK and then sue its author for libel in a UK court. You could both be Iranian, and this would stll work…

  21. #10 Batgirl make the most sensible comment I have seen on this issue.

    I wonder: it Simon Singh, rather than attacking the British Chiropractor Group, had attacked the the bad Astronomy Blog and accused Phil of being a anti vaccine campaigner, an astrologer and a proponent of homoeopathy, who strangles cats at every full moon. I wonder if you would be quite so keen on the idea that the libelled party has to prove that the accusations are wrong and that the accused is innocent until proved guilty.

    The simple fact is that, by bringing someone’s reputation into disrepute – even if those accusations are false – you are damaging him and should be prepared to substantiate those accusations.

    What is really wrong with the situation is that the winner in most libel actions is the person with the deepest purse who can employ the best lawyers. Which is why, despite your perception of the UK system, British newspapers can libel individuals with impunity. No libelled individual can afford to take a newspaper to court

  22. BGC

    @2 “I think that, in addition to speech writers, we need a Department of Acronyms…”

    which, incidentally, reduces to: DoA… as in “dead on arrival.”

    BGC

  23. Ken

    SOMETIMES the best way to fix something is to force it to break.

    What some enterprising folks might try & do is sue each other in the English system — with the intent being to overload the system with so many cases they have to change something. Win or lose, the parties could agree to not abide by whatever judgement the court decides…so the effect is to bog down their system. And if the contestents are colluding, they can really work to drag out the trial process & bog things down!

    There is undboutedly a limit to how many such cases they can accommodate–and it probably won’t take much more to gum things up (I couldn’t quickly find a count of how many such cases there are there, much less how long the in-court trial process takes).

    Also, consider taking advantage of the law to illustrate its flaws: it seems a politician ought to be a really easy target, and if they’re forced to defend themselves they’ll be that much more motivated to change the law (ditto for a jurist, barrister, etc. that might get sued). Are remarks they say in court in conjunction with other unrelated cases (perhaps an example used as an analogy) fair game for the libel law? If so, imagine the motivating possiblities!!!

  24. Ken

    The cost of doing what you propose to attempt bog down the system would be prohibitive. And any obvious attempt to drag out the process could lead to a prison sentence for contempt of court.

    Politicians. at least whilst speaking in Parliament are ‘privileged’ – not subject to the laws of libel. And anything said in court is also privileged. In Britain, if you want to attack someone without fear of a libel action the simplest way is to punch him on the nose. Then in the subsequent trial for assault you can, as part of your defence, denigrate him to your hearts content without fear of a libel action.

  25. Ginger Yellow

    ” You can post a magazine article to someone in the UK and then sue its author for libel in a UK court. You could both be Iranian, and this would stll work…”

    In terms of legal jurisdiction, yes. In practice, no. This would almost certainly be considered abusive and thrown out of court, particularly after recent jurisprudence, in which a couple of libel cases were dismissed because the alleged (and not disproven) defamation was not considered worth tying up the courts (and parties to the case) with.

    “Which is why, despite your perception of the UK system, British newspapers can libel individuals with impunity. No libelled individual can afford to take a newspaper to court”

    This is nonsense. There have been a string of libel victories, and libel threats successfully used, by individuals against newspapers. It’s true that most of these have been from people with deep pockets themselves, but not always (see the McCann family’s suit against the Express group, or for that matter Robert Murat’s suit against an array of papers and Sky News). Libel is a serious issue for newspapers, and particularly for journalists, as the plaintiff can choose who to sue – in Singh’s case the BCA went after him and not the Guardian in which he published the article because they figured he’d back down.

  26. Zucchi

    @Batgirl #10; @Dave #21: I disagree. In a libel suit, only one party is being accused of something IN COURT. A court that can enjoin publication and enforce penalties.

  27. Joost

    Phil,

    You’ve got things the wrong way around (at least):

    “In the UK, when sued, you have to prove the claim is false, the opposite of the way it works in most of the rest of the world, including the US. It should be up to the prosecution to prove the claim is true.”

    I think you meant to switch “false” and “true” here.

    Also, AFAIK, in the UK, it’s currently NOT sufficient to show that your claims are true, but I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough about UK law to say more about that.

  28. Dave from Manchester England #21

    “I wonder: it Simon Singh, rather than attacking the British Chiropractor Group, had attacked the the bad Astronomy Blog and accused Phil of being a anti vaccine campaigner, an astrologer and a proponent of homoeopathy, who strangles cats at every full moon.”

    Are you new around here? Phil has been called far worse than this, both in the comments here as well as by others on their own blogs. He may remove the post if it uses particularly offensive language (and that’s not a first amendment issue…it’s Phil’s blog), although there are plenty of strong negative opinions about him that stay up.Maybe Phil can verify this, but I am aware of exactly zero lawsuits he has filed against people for defamation.

    Yes, we get offended, we defend our beliefs, we use evidence in that process. We sometimes go to there blogs to post rebuttals. I think we know how people on this blog react to outrageous accusations!

  29. David B.

    Libel is not the accusation that someone has made false claims against you, but that someone has defamed you. In bringing a claim of libel, the BCA has to show that the person they are claiming libelled them actually wrote and published the statements attributed to him or her and that those statements were defamatory (i.e. damaging).

    They do *not* have to prove those statements are false, and a moments consideration on the difficulty in proving a negative should be enough to see why.

    Having proved there is a case of libel to answer, the person the claim was brought against has several defences, including that his statements were justified (i.e. the truth) or it was a fair expression of opinion (hence calling someone a “total bastard” isn’t libel, even if the other party demonstrates his legitimacy with marriage certificate and DNA test).

    So in the Singh case, the BCA had to prove that Singh had in fact made damaging statements about them, which by natural justice the were deemed innocent of, and it was up to Singh to prove his accusations.

    First up, *everyone* should be expected to prove their assertions, that’s the usual way the burden of truth works. The BCA proved Singh had made defamatory remarks, Singh had to prove what he said was the truth.

    Second, Singh didn’t even try to use the truth as a defence, instead opting to undermine his own article by claiming it was a fair statement of his opinion. To any casual observer that can only make it appear is though Singh lacked a factual basis for his comments about the BCA.

    Third, truth is an absolute defence against libel in the UK, it is notably not so everywhere in the US. Talk of “regressive UK libel laws” rings very hollow when one realises that under American law Singh could have proved every one of his claims with mathematical rigour and yet still had damages awarded against him (c.f. Noonan v. Staples, which fortunately went the way of commonsense).

    There *are* problems with British libel law, notably that the bar for what constitutes defamation is set far too low (the real reason for libel tourism), but they are not the problems often cited in blogs. It is not a fault that if I accused Phil of molesting household pets he doesn’t have to produce affidavits from every pet he’s ever been in contact with to prove I libelled him. I would not be obliged to prove Phil’s claim of libel false, but to prove my claim of pet molestation true.

    Singh wrote a piece of sloppy journalism in which he accused the BCA of promoting “bogus remedies”. But when we read of a bogus policeman tricking his way into someone’s house does anyone ever really think that refers to someone who mistakenly thought they were a police officer? And when a bogus debt-collector or bogus landlord is reported in a local paper, does anyone believe for a moment that these people mistakenly thought they were owed money or owned those properties? Equivocation it may be, but “bogus” has a distinct and common meaning synonymous with fraudulent. Complementary medicine is worthless crap, but the casting of Simon Singh as some martyr to the cause of science is disingenuous at the very least. An ill-judged statement he is not prepared to stand behind is not science, and hopefully never will be.

  30. Darth Wader

    You for got to put something after “tip o’ the” you goofball. *Gasp!* Now I am a libelous dick. j/k that would be slander

  31. Richard

    Simon deserved to be sued for knowing nothing about the subject he espoused upon. When my doctors were advocating surgery to remedy my intense back pain, my wife forced me to go to her chiropractor. A few visits later and the pain was completely gone. Enough said.

  32. Kimpatsu

    So, the moment you travel outside the US, you get arrested as a fugitive from British law? Doesn’t seem much of a victory to me.

  33. Chris Winter

    Richard,

    My understanding is that Simon Singh referred to the chiropractors’ use of homeopathy, not skeletal system manipulations.

  34. Chris Winter

    David B. wrote from the UK: “Third, truth is an absolute defence against libel in the UK, it is notably not so everywhere in the US. Talk of “regressive UK libel laws” rings very hollow when one realises that under American law Singh could have proved every one of his claims with mathematical rigour and yet still had damages awarded against him (c.f. Noonan v. Staples, which fortunately went the way of commonsense).”

    This is a good point. You may not be familiar with our case of Lancaster v. Singer. (I’m not sure that’s the formal title.) It took place in 1994.

    There’s been lots of discussion of it online. You can also look up the new book Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes & Conway, where it’s described on pp. 190-197.

    Briefly, the facts are that S. Fred Singer had written an article with an ailing, 81-year-old Roger Revelle as coauthor. The article minimized climate change as a problem, a view which Revelle had never previously shared. Revelle died about the time it was published.

    Julian Lancaster, Revelle’s grad student and teaching assistant, accused Singer of falsely claiming Revelle as a coauthor and misrepresenting his views on climate change. Singer filed a libel suit against Lancaster and, because he had deeper pockets, prevailed in court. This despite the fact that Revelle’s personal secretary and some of his colleagues corroborated Lancaster’s claims. Lancaster was forced to recant, was gagged for ten years, and the court records were sealed.

    Lancaster put the whole story on the Web after the gag order expired. Singer did nothing about that. But as of 2008 it’s now found only on the Wayback Machine.

  35. MadScientist

    I wonder if the law is actually necessary though. After all, the UK courts have absolutely no jurisdiction within the USA and its territories (or anywhere outside the UK and its territories for that matter – except within consulates, military bases, and to some extent airlines and ships registered in the UK). What *can* happen is that someone sues you in absentia within the UK and you lose by default and that prevents you from entering the UK and its territories or else you may be arrested. However, passing laws within the USA cannot counteract that problem – there would need to be cooperative laws within the UK.

  36. TheBlackCat

    @ Richard: Ironic comment coming from someone who not only hasn’t read Singh’s article, but doesn’t even have the slightest clue what he actually said or what the BCA sued him for.

    If you had read the article you would know he doesn’t say that chiropractor’s can’t treat back pain, in fact he says it can be effective at that (although he advises against it because of the high risks it entails). In fact back pain is the only thing chirpopractic treatments have shown effectiveness at, although it is no more effective and far more risky than other physical therapy techniques.

    What he was actually sued for, though, was saying that chirporactic treatments are not effective at treating problems that have nothing to do with the spine. Here is the actual statement that caused the whole controversy:

    You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

  37. me

    So then in that case he didn’t say that the chiropractic association was bogus at all, he just said that some of the treatments that they promoted were. Seems fair enough.

    as for the suggestion that this is a non issue…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/apr/18/libel-tourism-sanea-case
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article7069734.ece

  38. me

    Also as a parallel, if he was writing an article about the fact that the UK National Health Service has been providing homeopathy on prescription, subsidised by tax, under the justification of ‘patient choice’ on direct instruction by the UK Government and used that to make the argument that the UK Government is happily promoting bogus treatments, then that would seem quite reasonable and would not mean that he was calling the whole of the UK Government bogus (although someone probably should).

    http://www.nhs.uk/news/2010/July07/Pages/nhs-homeopathy.aspx

  39. James D

    Being sued “in the UK” is a meaningless concept: there is no such jurisdiction. You’d either be sued for Defamation in Scotland or for Libel in England and Wales (and who knows or cares about Northern Ireland).

  40. me

    James, being sued in the UK is not a meaningless concept.

    If you are being sued in England, then by definition you are being sued in the UK, England being within the UK. I could draw you a nice Venn diagram if you like.
    Also, for civil cases at least, the UK Supreme court has overall jurisdiction for the whole of the UK.

    Oh, and Northern Ireland has libel (and still has blasphemous libel as a crime).

  41. CJSF

    Tip o’the “blank”, Phil?

    Awesome – very good to see this.

    CJSF

  42. #28 hale-bopp.

    I am aware that Phil has been attacked on here and on other blogs. But these places are very inconsequential arenas as far as the greater public are concerned. Had he been attacked by, for example, Paxman on BBC television with an audience numbered in millions; or in one of our redtop newspapers the situation would be different. When his income dried up and he failed to get invitations to meetings his opinion of the libel laws would probably change.

  43. Messier Tidy Upper

    Well I’m going to agree with the BA & Obama on this particular one. This is good news and the UK libel laws are ridiculous – In My Humble Opinion naturally. :-)

    I do believe freedom of speech is one of our greatest and most important freedoms – in the US and the Western world generally. I strongly agree with and support the idea attributed (I gather now perhaps wrongly) to Voltaire :

    “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    @23. Ken :

    SOMETIMES the best way to fix something is to force it to break. What some enterprising folks might try & do is sue each other in the English system — with the intent being to overload the system with so many cases they have to change something. Win or lose, the parties could agree to not abide by whatever judgement the court decides…so the effect is to bog down their system. And if the contestents are colluding, they can really work to drag out the trial process & bog things down!

    Nice idea. :-)

    Unfortunately there are laws against “vexatatious litigation” & “conspiring to pervert the course of justice” plus “contempt of court” as already mentioned by (# 24.) dave from manchester England that stand in the way of such a tactic being workable.

    I prefer Shakespeares suggestion that we “kill all the lawyers” personally!* ;-)

    @18. Nikki B Says:

    ..I don’t watch TV for a reason.

    That reminds of the question about why TV is called a medium :

    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *

    Answer : because it is neither rare nor well done! ;-)

    Actually, TV *does* have its positive uses when cricket or good documentaries like a certain apparently very good Bad Universe show are broadcast. ;-)

    ——

    *Note for the humour challenged – no I’m *not* seriously calling for lawyers to be killed – the above suggestion is tongue-in-cheek.)

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @42. dave from manchester England Says:

    #28 hale-bopp : I am aware that Phil has been attacked on here and on other blogs. But these places are very inconsequential arenas as far as the greater public are concerned. Had he been attacked by, for example, Paxman on BBC television with an audience numbered in millions; or in one of our redtop newspapers the situation would be different. When his income dried up and he failed to get invitations to meetings his opinion of the libel laws would probably change.

    I like the way the BA allows people to have their say even when they attack him unreasonably. It makes them look all the more stupid and churlish. ;-)

    I think the way Dr Phil Plait defends himself here – reasonably and politely not by suppressing or (usually) insulting those who disagree with him* – is superb and he is a great role model in this area.

    I can’t see a libellous attack on him in a mainstream media forum going unchallenged – but by solid evidence with good reasoned argument and with a lot of the BA’s many loyal fans speaking up in his defense as well – not via unfair nasty legal action which I feel Dr Plait is likely to resort to *only* when really necessary – unlike too many Americans and Britons! (Oops is that libellous or just a stereotype?) ;-)

    EDIT TO ADD :

    @45. Nigel Depledge :

    The biggest problem with UK libel law is not that the accused is guilty until proven innocent (although that’s bad enough). No, the larger problem is that it doesn’t matter whether or not what you said was true. If it is damaging to someone’s reputation, it is libel. So, even though Singh told the straight truth about the BCA, he was still found guilty because, in this case, the truth damaged their reputation.

    (Emphasis added)

    Agreed 100% there.

    To have it NOT matter whether what was said was true or not is just bonkers & utterly wrong in my view.

    —–

    * The possible, arguable ‘exception that proves the rule’ here being his occassional use of the insulting and counter-productive “denier” label for those disputing Anthropogenic Global Warming. I (now) agree with the climatologist consensus here that AGW is real but I still think the use of the loaded “denier” term is clearly an insult and as such is NOT conduicive to civilised rational discussion or changing people’s minds.

  45. Nigel Depledge

    Dave (21) said:

    The simple fact is that, by bringing someone’s reputation into disrepute – even if those accusations are false – you are damaging him and should be prepared to substantiate those accusations.

    Sadly, that’s irrelevant.

    The biggest problem with UK libel law is not that the accused is guilty until proven innocent (although that’s bad enough). No, the larger problem is that it doesn’t matter whether or not what you said was true. If it is damaging to someone’s reputation, it is libel.

    So, even though Singh told the straight truth about the BCA, he was still found guilty because, in this case, the truth damaged their reputation.

    Personally, I think that there should be different libel laws for private citizens and organisations. I.e. if you tell the truth about an organisation (such as a company, body of practitioners, government department or whatever), then it should be impossible for you to be guilty of libel. However, if you publicise the truth about the personal life of a private citizen, then you should be liable for prosecution despite it being true. That way, you protect individuals and prevent organisations from using this law to silence criticism.

    But I can’t see that happening.

  46. Nigel Depledge

    OK, IANAL, but…

    David B (29) said:

    First up, *everyone* should be expected to prove their assertions, that’s the usual way the burden of truth works. The BCA proved Singh had made defamatory remarks, Singh had to prove what he said was the truth.

    IIUC, proving the truth of his statement would not have been adequate defence. Partly, this is because the UK libel law doesn’t care if the damaging statements were true, only whether or not they were damaging.

    Partly, it comes down to the judge’s agreement with the BCA about the definition of “bogus”. Singh meant it in the sense of “egregious”, but it was interpreted to mean “deliberately fraudulent”. All the BCA had to do was claim that they believed the treatments to be effective and there is no way Singh could have claimed knowing fraud (unless the BCA had some kind of internal paper trail to which Singh could have gained access, but the UK does not have the US’s freedom of information laws).

    Since the claim of libel was based on the BCA’s interpretation of Singh’s words, not on the spirit in which they were intended, the damage was that the BCA was fraudulent (although, interestingly, they did remove from their website the claims that Singh was attacking). I firmly believe that the BCA ought to be answerable to the MHRA (the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency). Then we’d see these bogus claims shut down in a trice. But they are not so answerable.

  47. It looks like the SPEECH Act will be tested with TechDirt: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100825/02002110771.shtml

    The gist of the situation is that Jeffrey Morris didn’t like a comment (or a few comments) on TechDirt from a post from 2004. He is demanding that all of TechDirt.com be taken down thanks to the semi-anonymous comments some people have made on the site.

    Here’s hoping the SPEECH Act does its job.

  48. Ginger Yellow

    “So, even though Singh told the straight truth about the BCA, he was still found guilty because, in this case, the truth damaged their reputation.”

    He wasn’t found guilty. The BCA dropped their suit after the law lords ruled that one of the key phrases (“not a jot of evidence”) was opinion, not a factual statement capable of being defamatory. They found that evidence in this context meant “reliable evidence”, and that was a subjective judgement call.

  49. Fitz

    This is good news but the important part in all this is how will Fox and Friends spin this against Obama?

  50. Eamon

    James D @39 says

    “and who knows or cares about Northern Ireland”.

    What makes you say that?

  51. Ken

    Regarding the suggestion to bog down English courts with contrived libel suits intended to bog down the courts:

    - A couple of lawyers, working pro bono, could work a single case & a few such pairs working some high-profile cases might make the point. Great marketing for the lawyers (motive). Doesn’t necessarily cost much….or….a wealthy party may be inspired to fund such a ploy.
    — Couldn’t two parties represent themselves there? If so, imaging a day’s docket filled with such cases, all filled by overseas plaintiffs & defendents safe from extradition, that simply don’t show up. In effect creating a “sit-down strike” (its difficult or impossible to add, on the same day, tomorrow’s docket, etc.) — that’s a best-case scenario & highly improbable, I admit. But even if occasionally successful in lesser degree it sends a message–a newsworthy message.

    - Expense could be minimized by one side–the accused–giving up for lack of funds & doing so loudly in the press, etc. THEN, the winner can publicly gloat they won even though they were very wrong…but thank the English courts & law for being a co-conspirator.
    — If both parties (accused & accuser) are collaborating no actual payment need be paid–what count’s is the court’s judgement on record.

    - Sure, contempt might be an issue — but if the facts of the complaint are all public, the court would have to assess separately if the parties are conspiring. Very difficult if they’re located in foreign countries. And even if they are conspiring–to the uninformed public (at that point) real damages may be demonstratable!
    — AND that makes for very bad press for the law & courts if such antics become widespread (the mere appearance of such is damaging to the law & courts as it causes them to effectively admit the law motivating the action is so bad to motivate the action).

  52. Eugene

    In This Thread: relieved Americans and Butt-hurt Brits. :p

  53. Renee Marie Jones

    Patent and Copyright law in the US work pretty much like libel law in the UK. A person accused of Patent or Copyright infringement in the US is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

  54. xmundt

    Greetings and Salutations;
    It is my understanding that in American Libel/Slander cases, the so-called libelous/slanderous statements are held to be either true, or, a statement of opinion (which is protected under our First Amendment right of free speech). It is the responsibility of the injured party to prove that they are false or defaming in a malicious way. Under English law, the statements in question are assumed to be false and automatically defaming in a malicious way, leaving it up to the speaker to prove that their statements are true.
    In the case of Singh, he specifically addressed claims by the BCA saying, essentially, that by manipulating the skeletal system they could cure cancer and a number of other stubborn diseases. While it would be wonderful if this were true, the fact of the matter is that after decades of research and struggle, NONE of the treatments for cancer, etc, have involved popping the spine… Actually, Chiropractic in the USA got quite a bad reputation as early as the 1940s and 1950s specifically because they were making these sorts of claims. In most cases the cancer patients so treated were dead and so could not speak to the efficiency of the treatment. Since the Federal Government took some steps to regulate the practice, though, the wild and unsubstantiated claims have vanished, and, chiropractors are slowly building a good reputation as qualified doctors instead of wild-eyed quacks.
    Now…back to Singh’s case…while it was patently clear that he was expressing an opinion about certain claims made by the BCA, and, specifically about the wildest and least likely claims, the BCA looked upon any questioning of their procedures and policies as defamatory and so moved quickly to suppress any discussion about the efficacy of their practices by legal action against Singh. Is this the action of a group that is confident that their practices are based in sound scientific principles? I think not, and, as a matter of fact, it reminds me of the sorts of responses made to questions by the Catholic Church when Martin Luther asked those 95 questions; when snake oil salesman came to town in the 1800s; and when scammers today are asked hard questions about their product.
    While there are no easy answers, the British structure of libel laws does make it far easier to suppress reasonable discussion and airing of opinions than the American model, so, at least in my eyes, it will be a good thing for those laws to evolve towards the American model. If scientists are faced with massively expensive lawsuits if they publish findings that differ from the original experimenters, it can only have a chilling effect on research, and, in the long run cost civilization far more than it gains for those individuals who might end up being questioned.
    Pleasant Dreams.
    Dave Mundt

  55. Peter Phisher

    Sounds like a massive LOSS for Libel Reform. If other sovereign nations block specifically English libel legislature, then it becomes an English libel law problem, not a worldwide one.

  56. @Peter Phisher

    Actually, there’s a reason why the US is doing bank reform as part of an international effort: it will keep US banking from moving offshore by making sure the legislation imposed does not exceed that of other countries. If UK publishers and media companies find the cost of doing business is high enough to warrant moving offshore to a country that provides safe haven- there will be more economic pressure to reform the law to make the UK a more amicable environment.

    Also, you have to keep in mind that Americans are under no obligation to put their butts on the line just so libel reform can remain a salient international issue. The American scientist James Watson had a devil of time with revisions while writing The Double Helix just to conform with UK libel law, since his book would get published there. I don’t see why he should have had to worry about it- reading about the revisions, it’s hard to see why so much time and sweat was wasted over it.

  57. réalta fuar

    @David B. thanks for adding a dose of knowledge about the Singh case.
    Frankly, I’d never had the least bit of sympathy for him and feel he MIGHT , just might have done things purposely just for the publicity. The new American law, while
    not a bad thing, seems unlikely to have much in the way of a practical effect (I suspect that defamatory and clearly libelous books by faux news folks about Obama can still be sold
    with impunity in the U.K. , for example).

  58. me

    réalta – the dose of knowledge was as skewed as your logic. Singh had to use a fair comment case as the judge had already decided that describing the treatments as bogus meant that Singh was saying that the BCA was knowingly misleading people, so Singh was unable to use truth as a defense as he could not prove the intent of the BCA.

    I would like to know how you think he might be purposefully creating this situation for the publicity. He lost the first case and only won the appeal, which does not sound like something carefully planned. If he was doing this for the publicity and had not won the appeal, any further restatement of his position would have been very very expensive. As far as I can tell, he was merely doing his job.

    And why do you think the new law should have any practical effect on books sold in the UK? It is about whether US courts should uphold foreign judgements on libel, something they have been happy to do in the past as, believe it or not, the US does have treaties with many other countries over respecting the judgements of foreign courts.

  59. Nigel Depledge

    @ Ginger Yellow (48) -
    I stand corrected.

    I was under the impression that the BCA’s allegations were upheld in the initial hearing, but that Singh appealed, and it was on his appeal that the ruling came down in his favour.

  60. Nigel Depledge

    Renee MArie Jones (53) said:

    Patent and Copyright law in the US work pretty much like libel law in the UK. A person accused of Patent or Copyright infringement in the US is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

    Yes, from over here in the UK, the DMCA (is that the one?) looks like a tool for Hollywood and the music industry to maximise their profits.

  61. hevach

    10 and 21 are like saying a prosecutor is guilty until proven innocent in a murder trial.

    Fact is, in the any justice system, one side has to bear the burden of proof, and in the US system that side is always supposed to be the one that brings the charges, not the side being charged.

    Incidentally, it’s the same method science uses: The burden of proof lies on the one making the claims, not on the rest of the world to prove they’re wrong.

  62. Warren McIntosh

    @hevach – the principle is the same in both systems, the application just slightly different. In England & Wales the person who makes the statement is expected to prove that its true (or that it is a legitimate expression of opinion). I rather think that this is closer to your science method. The US free speech method is like saying “I have a theory that Goddidit! Prove me wrong!” and if you can’t it has to be accepted as truth. That’s not the way science works.

    Also, the UK system is not the same as saying a prosecutor is guilty until proven innocent, rather its the same as saying the person who accuses another of murder has to prove the allegation, not the accused having to prove the allegation is false.

    @Nigel @ post 45 & 46 – you could not be more compleatly wrong. The truth of a statement is an ABSOLUTE defence to a claim of libel. Please don’t misinform our american friends, you know how gullable they are.

    @DavidB – excellent and even-handed analysis. Great job.

    To be honset, I find some of the attitudes on this from Phil and others just bizzare – if someone writes in the paper that I’m a child molester, I damn well expect them to have to back up that allegation in court with evidence, or else compensate me for the damage to my reputation. Why should I, if the allegation is baseless, have to prove that I am not a child molester? Why should a newspaper, before causing my reputation harm, not be expected to have to gather real evidence to back up their claims?

    Perhaps what I find most interesting is the knee-jerk “US GOOD! FOREIGN BAD!” tone of the comments. These are equally valid approached to the problem which each have their strengths & weaknesses. The fundamental differences between the two systems in practice are ones of proccedure, not intent and not in outcome – free speech is perfectly healthy in the UK, libel laws or not.

  63. To see where this approach leads, one can look at the pleadings. By his defence Dr Singh sets out the undisputed fact that the BCA promotes chiropractic as a treatment for infants and young children suffering from colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, and then says:

    “The comment which the Defendant contends that the article bears is that the Claimant’s behaviour in so doing is reckless and irresponsible in the light of the lack of any reliable scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of such treatments and in the light of the risks of the treatment proposed.”

    He then sets out, ailment by ailment and study by study, his reasons for considering that none of the available epidemiological evidence reliably supports the BCA’s claims. This is met by a reply of comparable length in which the BCA, again ailment by ailment and study by study, contests his view and asserts that there is some dependable evidence for its claims. Ms Rogers has told us that, given the judge’s ruling that these are verifiable facts, the trial can be expected to involve expert evidence on both sides and a judicial conclusion as to whether there is any evidence for the BCA’s claims.

    One has only to contemplate this prospect to conclude that something is amiss. It is one thing to defame somebody in terms which can only be defended by proving their truth, even if this ineluctably casts the court in the role of historian or investigative journalist. It is another thing to evaluate published material as giving no evidential support to a claim and, on the basis of this evaluation, to denounce as irresponsible those who make the claim. Recent years have seen a small number of high-profile libel cases in which the courts, however reluctantly, have had to discharge the first of these functions. But these have been precisely cases in which the defendant has made a clear assertion of highly damaging fact, and must prove its truth or lose.

    The present case is not in this class: the material words, however one represents or paraphrases their meaning, are in our judgment expressions of opinion. The opinion may be mistaken, but to allow the party which has been denounced on the basis of it to compel its author to prove in court what he has asserted by way of argument is to invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth. Milton, recalling in the Areopagitica his visit to Italy in 1638-9, wrote:

    “I have sat among their learned men, for that honour I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom, as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning among them was brought; …. that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”

    That is a pass to which we ought not to come again.

  64. Ginger Yellow

    “Under English law, the statements in question are assumed to be false and automatically defaming in a malicious way, leaving it up to the speaker to prove that their statements are true.”

    Not quite. The plaintiff has to establish that the statements are defamatory, regardless of their truth value. In practice, this isn’t a very tough hurdle under English (or Australian or Northern Irish) law. At this point it’s up to the alleged defamer to provide a defence, one of which is justification (truth).

    Nigel: the hearing that Singh lost was simply on the meaning of the alleged defamatory statements, not on the substanstive issue of libel itself. Singh argued bogus didn’t mean knowingly fraudulent in this context, the BCA said it did. Justice Eady agreed with the BCA on this and another issue of interpretation. It was this interpretation that was overturned on appeal.

  65. Eamon

    JamesD@39

    Still waiting for a reason for your apparently bigoted statement…(see my post @50)

  66. This has engendered a process called “libel tourism”, where people will sue in the UK no matter where the defendant might live.

    Normally, the deciding factor is where the crime is committed or the dispute arises, not
    where the defendant lives.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »