Published online 1 April 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.167

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Science writer's victory hailed by UK libel reformers

British Chiropractic Association considering its options after court setback.

Simon SinghSimon Singh.

Scientists and campaigners for the reform of Britain's libel laws were celebrating today after leading science writer Simon Singh won a crucial appeal in a court battle with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).

Emerging triumphantly from the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Singh said that he hoped the strongly worded appeal judgment would also spur reform of British libel laws that, in their current form, may stifle scientific debate. "It's not good news, it's great news," he said.

The BCA is suing Singh over an article he wrote for The Guardian newspaper in April 2008. Singh was appealing against a May 2009 judgment, which ruled that the article was an assertion of facts, not opinion — and could be interpreted to mean that the BCA knowingly promotes treatments that do not work. A libel case fought on this basis would be nearly impossible to defend, Singh and his lawyers have said.

Today's ruling by the Court of Appeal allows Singh to argue that his words represented an expression of opinion. This means that he can use a "fair comment" defence under British libel law.

Although the BCA may appeal the ruling, and the libel case will continue if both parties decide to fight on, today's judgment is widely seen as a significant victory for Singh. "After two years of fighting an uphill battle we've got the wind behind us," he said. But, Singh added, wider issues with British libel law remain. It was concerning, he said, that many writers censor their articles; or settle libel actions out of court before they get to a trial, due to the prohibitive costs of fighting court cases.

Richard Brown, president of the BCA, said in a statement that his organization is considering its next move. "We are of course disappointed to lose the appeal, but this is not the end of the road and we are considering whether to seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and subsequently proceed to trial," his statement said.

Taking libel out of science

Singh's lawyer, Robert Dougans of Bryan Cave LLP, thinks that the ruling could help to establish wider legal protection for those who wish to debate scientific matters. "What this case does is give a strong steer to the lower courts that when you're talking about scientific research and scientific debate, you should assume it is comment," he said.

The court's written judgment noted that the litigation had "almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the possible use of chiropractic". And the judges adopted a statement on libel and science, made in a 1994 US libel action (Underwager v. Salter 22 Fed. 3d 730; 1994), which had been raised by Singh's lawyers. It states, in part: "Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation."

The BCA statement says: "Our original argument remains that our reputation has been damaged ... it never was, and it is still not our intention, to curb freedom of speech, whether in the field of scientific research or elsewhere, although sadly we recognise that this is how it has been portrayed by Dr. Singh and his supporters."

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The strong language of today's ruling may also add impetus to a wider campaign — backed by Nature (see Nature 459, 751; 2009) — to reform Britain's libel laws, which are widely seen to favour those claiming defamation. Campaigners are urging all three of the main UK political parties to make libel reform a firm pledge in their manifestos for the forthcoming general election.

"This is a ruling that reinforces the need to reform libel laws," said Evan Harris, Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon. Harris is the science spokesman for the Liberal Democrat party and led the Parliamentary campaign for libel reform. The fact that it had cost Singh £200,000 (US$305,000) and two years just to reach this point showed the flaws in the current system, he added.

David Davis, a Conservative member of parliament who also supports Singh, took a similar line: "If we allow the chilling effect of prospective libel actions to restrain freedom of speech in science then we will handicap our entire country." 

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  • #61313

    Not all chiropractors claim to cure sicknesses. I think some simply fit slipped disks and the like that have been diagnosed by doctors into place.

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