Leader: Cheap writ buys costly silence

English libel law allows all comers from across the globe to chill free speech and still scholarly inquiry. Reform is now essential

January 14, 2010

For Socrates, uninhibited inquiry was essential in the quest for truth. He was lucky he did not have to contend with the English legal system. Today's scholars are not so fortunate. When science writer Simon Singh appears before the Court of Appeal in London next month in the latest stage of his libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), he will be just one victim of England's draconian libel laws.

He joins a scholarly hit list that includes:

- Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, who is being sued by NMT Medical after raising doubts about one of the US firm's products at a cardiology conference in America

- Henrik Thomsen, a Danish clinician, who is being sued by GE Healthcare for raising the potential risks posed by its drug Omniscan

- Hannes Gissurarson, an Icelandic professor, who is being sued for remarks he made on a website in his home country

- Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter and co-author with Dr Singh of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, who has faced libel claims from the alternative-medicine lobby

- Ben Goldacre, medic, columnist and author, who was sued for criticising the promotion of vitamins in South Africa to treat HIV and the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, which was forced to remove a paper about lie-detector technology from its website after a threat of legal action from the manufacturer of the equipment.

It is not just companies that are resorting to law; academics themselves are also taking to the courts. The US College of Art Association was in 2008 forced to apologise publicly and pay $75,000 (£46,500) to an Israeli academic over a review published in its Art Journal.

But the cases that make it to court are just the tip of an iceberg marking a legal climate that some Americans describe as "chilling" free speech and has led others to dub London "a town called sue". Because English libel law is overwhelmingly biased towards the claimant, many more cases are settled out of court. A partner at one London legal firm says he now hears from at least one academic or scientist a month seeking legal advice on libel.

In Dr Singh's case, the BCA chose not to sue the newspaper he wrote for but Dr Singh himself. He can afford to defend this action because he is a bestselling author. However, most academics cannot. National newspapers too can afford, within reason, to fight libel, but what about the specialist scholarly journals constantly questioning conventional thinking and advancing the boundaries of knowledge?

If Dr Singh and the others lose, they will not be the only ones to suffer: the damage to scholarship will be immeasurable as academics censor their own work for fear of being sued.

English libel laws make a mockery of freedom of inquiry and stifle free speech. They attract litigants from around the world who reject open and honest debate in favour of legal action that, says Mark Stephens of Finers Stephens Innocent, "leaves society the poorer".

The quest for truth is as important today as it has ever been. The scholars feeling the chilling effect of these laws are asking for the support of their peers in the academy. Sign the petition demanding reform of the libel laws at www.libelreform.org. Don't leave them out in the cold.


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