Conference fringe: Defending free speech – keep libel laws out of science

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With a harsh economic recession continuing to bite, with Westminster politics remaining in the doldrums and with a global climate change summit fast approaching, legal action taken against a science writer may be far down your priority list as party conference season approaches. And yet, the British Chiropractic Association’s attempts to silence Simon Singh’s critical comments reveal fundamental flaws in Britain’s libel law, and threaten to undermine the freedom of expression that insulates us from the very worst consequences of public and private sector failures.

It is in this context that I invite all Lib Dem Voice readers to attend a fringe event I’ve organised at this year’s conference. The event is entitled Defending free speech – keep libel laws out of science, and will take place in the Marriott Highcliff Hotel’s Blandford Syndicate room 3 at 13.00.

We will hear an illustrious panel of speakers discussing how legal threats are being used to suppress scientific debate, and how Britain’s libel laws must be reformed:

Best-selling science writer Simon Singh will share with us his experience of being sued for libel following an article in The Guardian criticising the chiropractic profession for promoting therapies that have no evidence for efficacy; author of Bad Science and the badscience.net blog Ben Goldacre will discuss how a legal chill is being cast over much of the critical commentary of unscientific practice in place of constructive debate; journalist and author Nick Cohen will discuss the wider absurdities of British libel law and its implications for many outside the world of science; and Liberal Democrat shadow science minister Evan Harris MP will argue that Parliament should consider fairer legislation to permit free discussion and debate. Síle Lane of the charity Sense about Science will introduce the speakers and their role in the charity’s campaign, Keep the Libel Laws out of Science. Please feel free to email me at the address below* for a pdf copy of an event flyer that recaps the details.

This event promises to promote not only Simon’s defence against legal action, but to highlight just how flawed Britain’s libel laws and their interpretations can be, and as such forms part of the continuing struggle to defend civil liberties from erosion.

Spaces at the event will be strictly limited (frankly due to constraints on cost!) and on a first-come-first-seated basis, so I’d suggest those who are interested come along as early as possible, and that if you’re unable to attend to watch this space (and my blog at teekblog.blogspot.com) for a (necessarily crude) audio and video recording of the event, technical mishaps permitting.

In summary I call on those who wish to protect the scrutiny of baseless claims in any sphere; those who see the need for a balance between protecting individuals from defamation and protecting our right to dissenting opinion without fear of prosecution; indeed anyone who is interested in promoting freedom of speech to attend the event or to access the recordings thereof and get involved in the campaign to defend free speech from being suppressed by way of libel action.

In addition to the fringe meeting, I have drafted an amendment to the excellent conference motion F15, Standing up for civil liberties. The motion ends with reiterating the salient demands laid down in Chris Huhne’s Freedom Bill published earlier this year. The amendment is designed to highlight the need for libel law reform, particularly in the context of scientific debate, as Simon’s case emphasises. The text reads as follows:

At line 53, insert the following:

17. A review of Britain’s libel laws in order to safeguard the free exchange of information and ideas and, in particular, to promote the unhampered dissemination of evidence-based science that relates to our well-being and that of the planet.

I hope that the Conference organisers will accept the amendment for debate – the motion is due to be debated by conference in the session that immediately follows the aforementioned fringe event so it would be apt to follow the debate with Simon, Ben, Nick and Evan with an endorsement for libel law reform and free debate from Conference itself.

If you are a Lib Dem member and wish to support the motion (we need at least 10 signatories), again please email me at the address below* for more details – the only issue here is that the submission deadline is noon on September 8th!

I hope this gives you a flavour of how critical an issue libel law reform is, not only to ensure free discussion of scientific principles but also in order to promote political discourse; at a time when failures of both the government and the private sector have created a perfect storm in the political economy, it is vital that we retain the freedom to hold those in power to account.

*For further details on the fringe event and on the motion amendment please email prateekdotbuchatgmaildotcom (replacing the dot with . and the at with @)

Prateek Buch is a Liberal Democrat member in Epping Forest, and blogs at teekblog.blogspot.com.

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28 Comments

  • I’d agree with the first half of that amendment but not the second which effectively creates a “Some animals are more equal than others” type of protected speech.

  • Is it me, or does this article not mention what day this fringe is on?

  • @ Jennie – no comment necessary there I feel 🙂

    A bit of a classic bit of internery in that you have people who fundamentally agree arguing about a minor point of detail.

    Having party policy that cannot be made into effective laws because it is too vague isn’t really such a good idea. If we go down that route we could just pass a catch-all policy, “Conference believes that things would be much better if only everyone would be nice all the time” 🙂

    “courts will interpret bills that make it into law.”
    Yes but passing legislation that reads, “we know this is a bit vague but the Law Lords will sort it all out in the end” is a recipe for unintended consequences as they wrestle with (possibly contradictory) secondary sources for statutory interpretation. Get it wrong and you give the scientologists free rein to defame at will…..

    However, having had a brief look at the Simon Singh case it seems that the statement in question is at least in part one about the conduct of the British Chiropractic Council rather than one of fundamental scientific truth. I don’t see how you frame a set of libel laws which would exclude such a statement without allowing people to defame at will.

    One issue to look at in libel law reform is the use of “no-win, no-fee” arrangements which have been very widely criticised for their “chilling effect”

  • “Not too sure how the amendment is vague, as this issue arose in this instance from a science writer being silenced when writing evidence-based commentary.”

    His statement about the BCA is not evidence-based commentary, it is a claim about the conduct of a professional regulatory body. Had he written, “Claims that chiropractic treatments can treat colic are clearly bogus” that defames no-one (well probably…). I don’t see how this case prevents scientific criticism as it is, in part at least, about a claim of the conduct of the BCA.

    “You buy a newspaper with a pound coin. you hand over the coin in good faith that it’s legal tender, but if it turns out to be a fake it would still be legitimate to call the coin ‘bogus’ whilst not implying malice on your part.”

    Different situation, I’m not implying that anyone has been engaged in dishonest/unprofessional conduct. If however I accused the shopkeeper of knowing passing fake coins then that would be prima facie defamatory. Several defences could arise (truth of the statement, possibly that it was made without malice and in the public interest).

    If Simon Singh’s statement is true (ie proved on balance of probabilities) then that would be pretty much an absolute defence. But it must be true as regards the whole of the statement.

    “I hope he wins on appeal.”

    AIUI (which is on limited reading so I may be wrong) the situation is that Justice Eady has made a ruling on the meaning of the statement and in effect set the question that the jury must answer.

  • Simon Singh should not have accused those silly people of deliberately misleading their customers. Then he would not face libel charges. I was not of the belief that science progresses by accusing people of fraud.

  • Are our laws on defamation really such that any charlatan, con-man or snake-oil salesman can use them to aggresively defend himself from criticism merely by claiming that he sincerely believed the claims he was making?

  • “He has said time and time again that he only meant to say that they were…

    “I really meant to say….” isn’t a defence to defamation. Well certainly not a very good one though it might have some bearing on what the jury conclude the defamatory statement actually meant.

    “surely the public have a right to be protected against snake-oil salesmen – if so, how can we stop people from accusing snake-oil salesmen of being snake-oil salesmen?”

    The qualified privilege defence would cover such a situation – and I’m sure that it will be argued when this comes to trial.

  • “Not unless he didn’t actually say what he is being accused of. Have you read the article?”

    All I’ve read is an extract on Wikipedia which I assume is the section under dispute (it’s obviously difficult to reprint an article that is the subject of a libel action).

    “When I read it I understood him to be accusing them of negligence (ignoring the evidence) and delusion (believing that their fanciful treatments actually help people).”

    Accusations of negligence are just as defamatory as ones of fraud!

  • It is for that reason that the defence of qualified privilege exists. It’s not a simple area of law but basically if you are acting genuinely in the public interest and without malice you will have a defence.

    Truth is also an absolute (and the best!) defence.

    The problem with the solution advocated above is how do you decide whether these things are the case without some sort of judicial procedure. If your talking about a system where someone’s reputation can be impugned in a way which leaves them with no possible* remedy then that’s not an idea I could support.

    *That is a remedy in theory, there is an issue with defamation, as with other actions, about access to the courts. Having been libelled in fairly crude terms by another blogger I decided not to bother with legal action as it wasn’t worth the time and energy. One Lib Dem I know who successfully defended a libel action has not, AFAIK recovered their costs several years later.

  • George Greenwood 18th Sep '09 - 11:08pm

    I have read several of the comments on your article and am concerned that many do not reflect the urgency of this amendment. The debate should be how do we get this action on the road, not about onanistic, hairsplitting amendments to your draft. Do these people understand the scientific method that is under attack here or are we regressing to medieval values of persecution?

  • Ian Adamson 20th Sep '09 - 6:50pm

    Simon Sing is being sued by a large organization. But do you recall case of journalist who successfully sued the Daily Express for libel after reporting the Second World War? Libel laws must work both ways!

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