Scientists Celebrate UK Libel Reform

New libel laws for England and Wales should help protect scientific debate, but campaigners worry that legal costs remain a threat.

Apr 29, 2013
Dan Cossins

Science writer Simon Singh, who became a standard bearer for the Libel Reform CampaignWIKIMEDIA, STEVE TRIGGA campaign driven largely by the UK science community to reform libel law in England and Wales was rewarded last week (April 24) when Parliament passed a new Defamation Bill designed to make it harder for claimants to suppress free speech, including scientific debate, reported ScienceInsider.

The law will please many scientists because it provides special protection for statements made in peer-reviewed journals. Evan Harris, parliamentary adviser to the Libel Reform Campaign, told ScienceInsider under the new libel rules, “academic journals will have fewer worries . . . about allowing vigorous debate, including commentary on peer-reviewed work.”

Under the current laws, a claimant alleging defamation or libel need only demonstrate that a public statement might inflict reputational damage to take a case to court. Critics argued that the system is skewed in favor of claimants, and that the threat of expensive court cases can force people to keep quiet and deter publishers from putting out critical or controversial statements. After a several high-profile cases drew attention to such problems—including a 2008 incident in which science writer Simon Singh was unsuccessfully sued by the British Chiropractic Association over a column he wrote for The Guardian—several organizations mounted the Libel Reform Campaign.

In addition to special protection for statements made in peer-reviewed journals, the new law requires claimants to show “serious financial damage” before a case can move to court. It also introduces a stronger defense of “responsible publication on matters of public interest” to provide more protection for newspapers or magazines publishing controversial articles on scientific and other matters, reported Nature.

Campaigners remain concerned that the government has not clarified how it plans to reduce the costs of libel trials, however, which is crucial because the threat of crippling financial costs for defendants is what leads many people who are sued or threatened with legal action to capitulate rather than mount a defense.

Despite such reservations, Singh welcomed the new law. “Now that academic publishers have additional protection, it wll be much harder to sue an academic journal for libel, and that's a really firm step forward,” he told ScienceInsider.