Draft defamation bill given cautious welcome by libel reform campaigners

Campaigners have welcomed the publication by the government of its draft defamation bill, but have warned that it does not go far enough to protect the freedom of expression of academics, scientists, non-governmental organisations and journalists.

March 16, 2011

The draft bill, which has been put out for consultation, gives a qualified exemption from libel claims for scientific conferences.

It also introduces a new requirement that a statement must have caused substantial harm in order for it to be defamatory, as well as firming up existing defences based on truth and “honest opinion”, and codifying a new statutory public interest defence.

The consultation document asks a series of further questions, including whether specific restrictions should be placed on the ability of corporations to sue for libel, as campaigners have demanded.

The draft bill adopts around half of the measures called for by the Libel Reform Campaign in its What Should a Defamation Bill Contain? document, released last week.

Among the proposed measures not taken up is the call for liability for archive material to be limited to one year from original publication.

“This is something that academic publishers and scientists are going to have to ask the government to clarify,” said Síle Lane, public liaison and campaign manager at campaign group Sense About Science.

David Willetts, minister for science and universities, said: “I encourage all who care about protecting scientific debate to respond to the consultation and tell us what works and what should be improved. I am inviting key members of the science community to discuss the bill with me next week.”


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