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.