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.


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