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Freed speech

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The reform of English libel law is a victory, even if it doesn’t achieve everything that was hoped.

In a typically British piece of formal pomp, the speaker of the UK House of Commons, John Bercow, last week declared: “I have to acquaint the House that the House has been to the House of Peers, where a Commission under the Great Seal was read, authorizing the Royal Assent to the following Acts.”

In the list of new legislation that followed, alongside the ‘Marine Navigation (No. 2) Act’ and the ‘Groceries Code Adjudicator Act’, Bercow announced the Queen’s formal approval of a long-awaited reform to libel laws in England and Wales.

Nature was taken to court under the previous version of these laws, which were widely regarded as skewed in favour of those who claim libel, and we were among the many supporters of the Libel Reform Campaign, which drove the fight for change. Cases such as that of science writer Simon Singh, who was forced to defend himself against a claim by the British Chiropractic Association over an article published in The Guardian newspaper in 2008, galvanized the public and raised concern about the laws’ chilling effects on the free expression of scientific opinion.

Those cases ended in victories for Singh, for Nature and for scientific debate and free speech. But it was rightly feared that those without the resources of Nature or the tenacity of Singh would back down rather than face the costs of going to court, or might even shy away from making statements that might attract attention from litigious parties in the first place.

The new law will require that bodies that trade for profit show “serious financial loss” if they wish to sue someone for defamation. It also includes formalized defences for journalists publishing on matters of public interest, and further protections for the reporting of statements made in peer-reviewed journals and at international conferences.

‘Libel tourism’ — in which those with no real link to Britain come to use the unfair laws in London courts — will be restricted by the new act. It sets bars for action against people who do not live in the United Kingdom or the rest of Europe, unless the claimant can show that England is truly the most appropriate venue for legal action.

These are all real gains that should improve the communication of science by making it easier to speak truths that some may not wish to hear.

The rewriting of the law led to celebration among the scientists, journalists, lawyers and others who have pushed for reform. But there were cautionary voices. It is not yet clear how the new law will work in practice for much of the Internet. And it may not reduce the cost of litigation. If defending an action is still financially crippling, concerns that the law can be used to threaten people into silence will persist.

Robert Dougans, solicitor-advocate at the litigation firm Bryan Cave in London, who represented Simon Singh in his fight with the British Chiropractic Association, said, “Frankly, I cannot see this having made any difference in any case I have been involved in, and I wish an opportunity had been taken to re-think defamation law ab initio.” (See Naturehttp://doi.org/mc6;2013.)

Dougans may be too pessimistic. There is good reason for those who have fought hard to rejoice. But it remains to be tested whether the culture of suppression has truly been swept away. If it has not, the fight will have to begin again.

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England’s libel laws reformed in a victory for science campaigners 2013-Apr-24

The right to speak out 2013-Apr-09

Victory for responsible reporting 2012-Jul-11

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Freed speech. Nature 497, 6 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/497006a

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