Do libel laws chill scientific debate?

Keep libel out of science logo, via their websiteA few weeks ago, the Science Gallery in TCD hosted a fascinating event on the chilling impact of the law of libel on scientific debate. Chaired by Myles Dungan, the speakers were Simon Singh, who successfully defended a two year libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association, 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. A video of the event is now up on YouTube.

The cases against Singh and Wilmshurst are English, but, as an article in today’s Irish Times shows, Irish law is to the same effect:

Defamation actions which can chill or stifle scientific debate

Libel litigation should not be the means by which scientific controversies are resolved

[Singh and Wilmshurst] are only two conspicuous examples of a disturbing trend towards using the courts to prevent scientific debate. This is not what libel law is for. On the one hand, the right to a good name is a basic human right. On the other, the right to freedom expression is a central democratic principle. The aim of libel is to find the appropriate balance between these competing interests. …

In Ireland, the Defamation Act, 2009 has already made important changes, … [but it] is an incomplete reform. It does nothing to prevent libel tourism. Its new centrepiece defence of fair and reasonable publication is unworkable. Its changes relating to damages are very timid.It confirms that corporations can sue for damages and it will have little impact on the enormous costs of litigation. Consequently, it will not prevent actions aimed at chilling or stifling scientific debate.

Libel law still threatens the open exchange of critical views that is at the heart of the scientific method. Writers potentially self- censor to avoid defamation actions even on matters of serious public interest. We all suffer when we cannot read about scientific disputes, especially if it is the law rather than science that determines not only what we can know about but also what treatments and medical devices are to be available to us. … We must not rest on the laurels of our recent reform, since it is far from complete. In particular, much more work needs to be done to ensure freedom of scientific debate – and it should be done before a misconceived case like that against Simon Singh is taken in an Irish court.

One of Simon Singh’s main supporters, who blogs as Jack of Kent, is now writing a book about that case; he has assembled many scary examples of similar libel actions to stifle scientific debate, and he would like to hear from anyone who was involved in the case.

Finally, for those who’ve made it this far, here’s the Science Gallery YouTube video of the libel chill event:

From left to right: Simon Singh, Robert Dougans, Myles Dungan, Peter Wilmshurst, and Mark Lewis.