Science Campaigners Celebrate New Libel Law for England and Wales

LONDON—Scientists campaigning for libel law reform in England and Wales have a reason to celebrate. A new Defamation Bill that advocates say will help protect free speech—including statements included in peer-reviewed scientific publications—on Wednesday received the go-ahead from Parliament after several months of ping-pong between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

The bill aims to "ensure that a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation," according to the Parliament's summary of the bill.

Under current English law, plaintiffs alleging spoken defamation or published libel must meet a relatively low bar to get into court: They need only show that a public statement might inflict reputational damage. Under the new law, however, claimants will have to present evidence of "serious financial harm" before a suit can move forward. (Scotland has its own libel law.)

"It's a good libel bill, it's something we should all be proud of," says Simon Singh, a science writer who was unsuccessfully sued by the British Chiropractic Association in 2008 over a column he wrote for The Guardian questioning the effectiveness of chiropractic treatments. The lawsuit attracted wide attention, and campaigners for libel reform cited it—alongside a couple of other high-profile cases—as examples of how libel laws in England and Wales could be used to stifle scientific debate.

In 2007, U.K. cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst was sued after criticizing a U.S. biomedical company, NMT Medical, over the adequacy of its clinical trials. He won the case, but nearly lost his home as a result of the cost of the process.

In 2008, the journal Nature was dragged into a costly court battle by an Egyptian researcher who claimed that one of Nature's articles damaged his reputation when it alleged that he had self-published many papers without peer review. Nature argued that the claim had no merit and won in 2012.

The cases prompted the Libel Reform Campaign, with three organizations—Sense About Science, Index on Censorship, and English PEN—joining forces to change English libel law. The campaign attracted tens of thousands of supporters, including the actor and gadget expert Stephen Fry and David King, former chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government.

Those allies are now generally welcoming the new law, which has been debated in Parliament since May 2012. Many scientists are pleased that it singles out statements made in peer-reviewed technical papers for special protection. "My own proposal for statements in peer-reviewed papers to be privileged, or immune, for the purposes of libel, will be made law, and that will certainly mean that Science and other academic journals will have fewer worries and cost about allowing vigorous debate including commentary on peer-reviewed work," says Evan Harris, parliamentary adviser of Libel Reform Campaign.

Despite a number of "compromises," the law will also provide a stronger defense of fair comment by journalists and others, says Sense About Science Managing Director Tracey Brown. It also establishes "a new public interest defense [that] will help writers everywhere to decide what to publish based on 'Is it true?' rather than 'Will they sue?' "

The law will also make it harder for plaintiffs to engage in "libel tourism," the name given to the practice of using courts in England and Wales to sue foreign publications. (Many nations require libel suits to be filed in the nation where a publisher has an office or headquarters.)

But the government still has to clarify the procedures that will govern exactly how the law will work in practice, Brown and others note, adding that those rules will help determine the cost of future libel cases. Another area that awaits clarification is how exactly the law will apply to material published on the Internet, Singh adds. Extending the new protections to the web would "turn a good bill into a great bill," he says.

The bill will not prevent foreign companies from suing scientists for defamation and libel in English courts, Harris notes. But "we are campaigning for new court rules that would mean that trivial and bullying claims are rejected by the court before the publisher has to spend money on her defense," he says.

Singh predicts that the new law will lead to fewer court battles. "Now that academic publishers have additional protection," he tells ScienceInsider, "it will be much harder to sue an academic journal for libel, and that's a really firm step forward."

Now that Parliament has agreed on the law, it requires just the Queen's formal assent to become law. That assent is expected within days.

*Clarification, 11:55 a.m., 26 April: Peter Wilmshurst was first sued in 2007, but was sued again in 2010.