June 5, 2009

UK Libel Laws Still Chilling Free Speech

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A page from Galileo's notebook â€A Wall St. Journal report by Salil Tripathi says that award-winning science writer Simon Singh, author of the best-selling Fermat’s Enigma, is being sued over an article he wrote for The Guardian last year. As the WSJ puts it, “his inquiring mind has got him into trouble with U.K. libel laws — laws that have long stifled free speech not just in Britain but around the world.”

Singh’s article challenged the British Chiropractic Association‘s claim that its treatments can cure, among other ailments, colic among infants, ear infections, and asthma, a claim that appeared in the newspaper in April of 2008. According the Guardian report, “Mr. Singh said there was no evidence to support these claims, which he called ‘bogus.’”

Instead of calling out Mr. Singh to an open debate, or a duel, the cowardly BCA decided to sue for libel. And unfortunately, Justice David Eady decided that they had indeed been defamed, explaining the Singh’s article implied that the BCA knowingly misled its patients — although the article didn’t question the group’s motivations, just the fact that it had no scientific evidence to back up its claims.

Nevertheless, Singh can either settle or fight the judgment. And fighting can be fantastically expensive. Hence, that chilling effect on free speech, as the WSJ report notes. Indeed, “libel tourism” has become a little judiciary cottage industry in the UK, with suits being brought from all over the world. So much so that the US Congress is considering legislation to make UK rulings unenforceable in the US.

There have been several high profile cases recently that have brought the dangers of “libel tourism” home to the US. The Journal also mentions the case involving Khalid bin Mahfouz, who “won a verdict against American author Rachel Ehrenfeld, who examined the flows of Saudi money to Islamist terrorists in her book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It.” The judge — the same David Eady as in Mr. Singh’s case — ruled in the plaintiff’s favor even though the offending book was not available for sale in U.K. book shops and only a few copies may have been sold in the U.K. on the Internet. Ms. Ehrenfeld and her publisher had decided not to publish the book in Britain for the very purpose of escaping British libel laws — but to no avail.”

There are forces afoot in the UK determined to change these laws, and the Journal article ends with a plea to politicians from its author Tripathi, member of PEN’s Committee to Reform English Libel Laws, to do the right thing. “Mr. Singh is unlikely to be the last victim of Britain’s libel laws. Settling scientific and political disputes through lawsuits, though, runs counter the very principles that have made Western progress possible. ‘The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error,’ Bertolt Brecht wrote in ‘The Life of Galileo.’ It is time British politicians restrain the law so that wisdom prevails in the land, and not errors.”

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.

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