UCL provost: libel law is stifling academic freedoms

Head to add signature to new petition calling for reform of English legislation. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 10, 2009

A university leader has thrown his weight behind a campaign to reform England's libel laws amid growing concern about so-called "libel tourism" and its impact on academia.

Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London and a trained lawyer, told Times Higher Education that the current laws were having an impact beyond Fleet Street and were stifling scientific debate and academic freedom.

"It is fundamental and critically important that the threat of libel law be lifted from scientific dispute," he said, describing it as "quite chilling" that the laws were being used to threaten scholars with heavy financial penalties for making simple points about science.

Professor Grant is joining representatives from science, journalism, publishing and the literary sector this week to launch a new petition for libel-law reform, organised by the charity Sense About Science, the free-speech organisation Index on Censorship and English PEN, which represents authors.

He said: "There are not many vice-chancellors who are lawyers, and I am heading up a very strong science university, so I think it is important to be involved."

The petition calls for "major reforms" of the English libel laws, saying they "inhibit debate" and "stifle free expression".

Victims of the law

The campaign follows a number of high-profile libel cases involving scientists.

The science writer Simon Singh is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) after writing an opinion piece in which he described some chiropractic treatments as "bogus" and criticised the BCA for "happily promoting" them.

A petition in support of Dr Singh, titled "Keep libel laws out of science", has been signed by more than 20,000 people.

Peter Wilmshurst, consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, is being sued by the American firm NMT Medical after raising doubts about one of its products at a cardiology conference in the US.

And last year, the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law removed a paper about lie-detector technology from its website after a threat of legal action from the manufacturers of the equipment.

Richard Wiseman, a scientist at the University of Hertfordshire's School of Psychology who studies the paranormal, is also backing the new campaign.

"I can say there is no evidence for astrology and no one can sue me for libel, but as soon as I pick on a particular astrologer or organisation, I've got a potential problem," he said.

He added that as the Government was encouraging academics to engage more with the public, libel laws were becoming more of an issue.

"Academics need to understand libel law if they are writing articles, particularly in popular newspapers and magazines," he said.

Professor Grant is thought to be the only university head so far to have signed up to the campaign, and his involvement was welcomed by David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at UCL, who has been using his popular Improbable Science blog to highlight the fight.

He said: "It is excellent news but what took him so long? There are about 20,000 people before him."



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