Thawing the libel chill?

Science Gallery logoOn Thursday evening, from 6:30pm to 8:00pm, the Science Gallery in TCD will host what promises to be a fascinating event on the chilling impact of the law of libel on scientific debate:

Libel Chill with Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst

Libel reform has become increasingly relevant in scientific research and journalism in the UK and Ireland, as highlighted in recent times by the high profile case of Simon Singh. Libel laws have been accused of intimidating journalists, scientists and publishers into silence for fear of legal persecution. The effect has been dubbed “libel chill” and the Libel Reform Campaign argues ‘Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.’

Master of ceremonies for the evening will be Myles Dungan, and speakers will include Simon Singh, who successfully defended a two year libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association, and his lawyer Robert Dougans. Cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst who is currently being sued for libel in the biggest ongoing medical libel case, and his lawyer Mark Lewis, will also speak at the event.

There will be much discussion of amending the libel laws. For once, Irish law is ahead of the curve. The Defamation Act, 2009 eventually reformed Ireland’s outdated libel laws (though, of course, more could have been done). English law is likely soon to follow suit.

Today’s Times Online carries a very important article by Anthony Lester (Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC, human rights lawyer, free speech campaigner, Lib Dem peer, and Adjunct Prof of Law, UCC) argues that England’s law of libel must be rebalanced in the scales of justice, since it has a chilling impact on free speech, which is the lifeblood of democracy. English libel law, he says, “is notoriously costly, complicated and stifling of free speech”. The programme for government for the UK’s new government promises to “review libel laws to protect freedom of speech”. Lester therefore proposes to publish on Thursday (just in time for the Science Gallery event) a Private Member’s Bill on Defamation to help in that review. An Editorial in the Times urges the UK’s government to “seize Lord Lester’s template of legal sanity” which thoroughly “deserves to become law”. It is the latest step in an ongoing campaign for reform of the UK’s libel laws, and it is discussed by Lester on BBC radio’s Today programme this morning. Listen, and then buy a ticket for Thursday’s event.