The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

Richard Dawkins to address Lib Dem Conference to call for libel law reform

Today [Sunday] Professor Richard Dawkins will put the case for libel law reform to the Liberal Democrat conference proposing an amendment to the civil liberties bill.

The scientist and author is to appear as a guest speaker at Liberal Democrat Party Conference on Sunday.

Professor Dawkins will tell the conference that the chilling effect of libel laws on public debate about science and medicine, on writers and authors and on responsible journalism can no longer be ignored.

Professor Dawkins will say “The effects of England’s libel laws are especially pernicious where science is concerned” and that action must be taken to stop the law being “ridiculed as an international charter for litigious mountebanks. I urge the Liberal Democrats to support the call for reform, and hope that Labour and the Conservatives will follow, so that we can get cross-party support on this vital issue.”

There are long-standing concerns that English libel laws give too much power to the claimant, leading to a ‘chilling effect’, whereby writers are unable to critically analyse scientific and medical claims, for fear of legal action.

Dr Evan Harris MP, the party’s Science spokesman, and one of the leaders of the campaign who submitted the amendment, said:

“Liberal Democrats have a proud record on protecting free speech and we must now also recognise that balance in defamation is not right. It is shameful that London is regarded as the ‘libel capital of the world’ — where vested interests from around the globe can exploit our antiquated libel laws to silence valid criticism. The law needs to be better balanced towards free expression, responsible journalism and the public interest and away from the rich and powerful vested interests.”

Síle Lane, Sense About Science, who is coordinating the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign said: “Today’s debate is a great step forward in recognising that the chilling, stultifying effect of the English libel laws — on scientific debates and other important public discussions — has become dangerous and intolerable.”

Nick Ross, Broadcaster said: “If you think you support English libel laws, go and watch how they’re applied! It is not edifying — it is painfully long-winded, mired in esoteric rules, and colossally expensive.

Of course people should have a right to challenge if they feel defamed. But not the way we do it. Not through indulgence of costly and adversarial lawyers and a dogged adherence to custom and practice. And a public interest defence should, by default, exempt controversies in science.”

Stephen Fry, Broadcaster and Author said: “Freedom in politics, in thought and in speech followed the rise of empirical science which refused to take anything on trust, on faith, on hope or even on reason. When a powerful organisation tries to silence a man of Simon Singh’s reputation then anyone who believes in science, fairness and the truth should rise in indignation.”

Other people willing to comment include Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor of the BMJ, and Robin Ince, Performer.

A conference fringe event debating Defending free speech – Keep libel laws out of science organised by Dr Prateek Busch and involving Dr Síle Lane, Dr Simon Singh, Dr Ben Goldacre, Nick Cohen and Dr Evan Harris MP takes place on Sunday 20th September in Highcliff Marriott Hotel, Blandford Syndicate 3 between 13.00 and 14.15.

For more information and for interviews with Dr Evan Harris MP, Professor Richard Dawkins, Dr Simon Singh and others contact Síle Lane at Sense About Science on +44 (0)20 7478 4380 or +44 (0)7875 662 163.

Notes to editors

1. The debate will take place between 3.25pm and 4.45pm on Sunday 20th September with Prof Dawkins speaking at about 3.44.

2. There will be a press conference after the debate with Professor Dawkins, Dr Simon Singh and Dr Harris at 5pm in the Tregonwell Bar.

3. Professor Dawkins is a signatory to the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign statement. The statement has been signed by hundreds of free speech advocates, scientists, writers and broadcasters — sparked by the British Chiropractic Association’s decision to sue the popular science writer, Simon Singh.

4. Simon Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association for an article he wrote in The Guardian criticising the use of chiropractic for certain infant disorders. There is more information about the case in Simon’s account here.

5. The statement ‘The law has no place in scientific disputes’ was released by the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign being coordinated by Sense About Science since Simon Singh announced his determination to appeal a ruling in the case on 4th June 2009. See the statement and the complete list of signatories here. Sense About Science, Registered Charity No. 1101114, is an independent charitable trust that equips people to make sense of science and evidence.

6. Dr Harris and Professor Dawkins will be speaking as part of a debate on a motion on Civil Liberties, to which the following amendment was tabled:

Conference calls for: 17. The protection of freedom of expression, by reforming the libel laws in England and Wales to ensure that a better balance is provided between free speech, responsible journalism, scientific discourse and the public interest on the one hand and powerful corporations, wealthy individuals and vested interests on the other.”

7. The campaign is calling for an extension of the public interest defence. Suggested reforms include rebalancing of the burden of proof, away from the defendant; reducing the costs of defending libel actions and narrowing the jurisdiction for bringing a case in the English courts.

8. The Lib Dem conference has given its permission for Professor Dawkins — who is not a party member — to address the conference.

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