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Keeping Libel Laws from Stifling Scientific Debate

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  • Keeping Libel Laws from Stifling Scientific Debate

    British law has long given substantial leeway to libel, i.e. the degradation of a person's reputation by nonfactual claims. Prohibition of libel with punitive fines stifle scientific debate, such as the debate surrounding the efficacy of chiropractice. So, when the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued a science writer Simon Singh for criticizing chiropractice, the lawsuit has attracted much international attention. In the United States, because of it's stronger freedom of speech tradition, people are encouraged to criticize others and to express their opinions, even when the opinion is not necessarily based on facts. In 1994, a famous U.S. libel case (Underwager v. Salter 22 Fed. 3d 730; 1994) favored critical public discussions of scientific matters, saying that "Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation." This court decision in Britain is leading to calls from members of Parliament and others to begin considering reforming libel laws in Britain with respect to scientific discussions.
    Science writer's victory hailed by UK libel reformers

    British Chiropractic Association considering its options after court setback.

    Daniel Cressey

    Simon Singh.
    Scientists and campaigners for the reform of Britain's libel laws were celebrating today after leading science writer Simon Singh won a crucial appeal in a court battle with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).

    Emerging triumphantly from the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Singh said that he hoped the strongly worded appeal judgment would also spur reform of British libel laws that, in their current form, may stifle scientific debate. "It's not good news, it's great news," he said.

    The BCA is suing Singh over an article he wrote for The Guardian newspaper in April 2008. Singh was appealing against a May 2009 judgment, which ruled that the article was an assertion of facts, not opinion — and could be interpreted to mean that the BCA knowingly promotes treatments that do not work. A libel case fought on this basis would be nearly impossible to defend, Singh and his lawyers have said.

    Today's ruling by the Court of Appeal allows Singh to argue that his words represented an expression of opinion. This means that he can use a "fair comment" defence under British libel law.

    Although the BCA may appeal the ruling, and the libel case will continue if both parties decide to fight on, today's judgment is widely seen as a significant victory for Singh. "After two years of fighting an uphill battle we've got the wind behind us," he said. But, Singh added, wider issues with British libel law remain. It was concerning, he said, that many writers censor their articles; or settle libel actions out of court before they get to a trial, due to the prohibitive costs of fighting court cases.

    Richard Brown, president of the BCA, said in a statement that his organization is considering its next move. "We are of course disappointed to lose the appeal, but this is not the end of the road and we are considering whether to seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and subsequently proceed to trial," his statement said.


  • #2
    Unfortunately, there is a movement now that allows companies to sue bloggers when they make statements "without merit". Called SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation), many companies or people are now SLAPP suits against individuals to shut them up.