Campaigning for libel reform

This post first appeared at the Society of Biology’s blog and was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

Is has been a very busy couple of weeks for openness. First there was the Government-commissioned Finch Group report on open access to research publications. Then there was the Royal Society report ‘Science as an open enterprise’. And on Wednesday, the libel reform campaign for the freedom of individuals to conduct open and robust debate was stepped up a notch at an event in Parliament.

A stellar line-up – amongst them Professor Brian Cox, Dara Ó Briain and MPs from the three main parties – gathered in Committee Room 11 to speak about what is missing from the defamation bill which is currently being drafted. Chief amongst the concerns of the community is the lack of a public interest defence, which would protect individuals and NGOs from being sued for making statements in the public interest.

There have been a number of high profile cases of libel involving scientists. A number of these individuals – Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Stuart Jones and Peter Wilmshurst were in attendance (click the names for details of the cases brought against them). All were sued for trying to expose bogus claims which could pose public health risks.

At the event on Wednesday, Dave Gorman – one of the high-profile backers of the campaign – said that the current laws provide rich people with a way to put poor people “all in”. Rob Flello MP and Wilmshurst agreed that in its current form, the new bill will would make “no difference”, and David Davis MP called for more pressure to be put on backbench MPs, as this would influence the coalition. Jones, who is being sued for trying to expose dangerous medical advice, said that the threat of libel is “paralysing” and that he would be afraid to speak out again until the a public interest defence is in place. What is clear then, is that the campaign must go on.

The Libel Reform Campaign was founded by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science in December 2009. You can read more about all the changes being campaigned for in this briefing, sign the petition for libel reform here and join the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #libelreform.

Further reading in the Guardian:
‘Libel reform comes around less often than Halley’s comet. Let’s get it right’

‘Libel reform campaigners demand better public interest defence’

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