Sense about Science launched the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign in June 2009, calling for reform of the libel laws to protect open scientific discussion.
We encourage scientists to enter public debates about science and we support open discussion about scientific research so when we became aware that our libel laws were chilling scientific discussion, we knew we had to act. We objected to several high profile cases brought against scientists and were inundated with correspondence from hundreds of scientific researchers, patient groups, writers and publishers around the world about libel threats being used to silence scientific debate.
The timeline of events below tells the story of our involvement from June 2009 to our work today as part of the Libel Reform Campaign with writers’ organisation English PEN and free-speech organisation Index on Censorship. The groundswell of support for the campaign led to the libel laws in England & Wales being reformed. The Defamation Act 2013 received Royal Assent on 25th April 2013 and came into force on 1st January 2014.
Launch of Libel Reform Campaign (2009)
Sense about Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN launched the Libel Reform Campaign in 2009. More than 20,000 people had signed the Keep Libel Laws out of Science Campaign after its launch in June 2009 to protest against the silencing of critical discussion, medical practice and scientific evidence. In December 2009, English PEN and Index on Censorship wrote ‘Free Speech Is Not For Sale’ a report on the impact of English libel law on freedom of expression and our three organisations joined together as a coalition to campaign for major libel law reform. At the campaign’s launch, comedians, scientists and journalists came together at the Law Society to tell the public to sign a petition calling on politicians to support a bill for major reform of the libel laws in the interest of fairness and free speech. Academics, editors, human rights activists and writers also went to Parliament to tell MPs and Peers what the public don’t get to hear under the English libel laws. They spoke about the impacts of English libel laws on academic integrity, and its chilling effect on medical and scientific debate and discussion.
The Big Libel Gig (14 March 2010)
The Big Libel Gig brought together big names in UK comedy, science and politics on stage at London’s Palace Theatre to tell everyone that England’s libel laws have become a dangerous joke. An eclectic line-up of performers and speakers, including Dara O’Briain, Tim Minchin, Marcus Brigstocke, Robin Ince, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi, Professor Brian Cox, Simon Singh, Professor Richard Wiseman, Dr Peter Wilmshurst and Dr Ben Goldacre performed before a packed audience to highlight the issue of libel reform and raise much-needed funds for the Coalition for Libel Reform.
Mass Lobby for Libel Law Reform (2010)
Hundreds of advocates for libel law reform came to Parliament on 23rd March 2010 for a mass lobby event; to hear what the three main political parties are doing for libel law reform and to meet their MPs. The campaigners first heard from cross-party MPs including Justice Secretary Jack Straw who all committed to reform.
Straw said the case for substantial reforms has been made and that the Government is now committed to responding to the level of public support for libel law reform. He said the meeting was one of the best attended he had seen in Parliament in many years and demonstrated a huge strength of feeling.
Jack Straw wrote up his libel reform proposals in the Guardian (23 March 2010)
Libel Reform in election manifestos (2010)
All three major parties committed to libel reform in their general election manifestos.
The Labour Party: “To encourage freedom of speech and access to information, we will bring forward new legislation on libel to protect the right of defendants to speak freely.”
The Conservative Party: “We will review and reform libel laws to protect freedom of speech, reduce costs and discourage libel tourism.”
The Liberal Democrat Party: “We will protect free speech, investigative journalism and academic peer-reviewed publishing through reform of the English and Welsh libel laws – including by requiring corporations to show damage and prove malice or recklessness, and by providing a robust responsible journalism defence.”
Government announces Libel Reform Bill (2010)
On 9th July 2010 Justice Minister Lord McNally announced during the second reading debate of Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s Private Members Defamation Bill that the Government will publish a Bill to reform the libel laws early in the new year. It will focus on freedom of speech and protection of public interest debate. McNally stated the Government is firmly committed to legislation on a statutory public interest defence and the multiple publication rule. He said the Government has “a firm commitment to action.” Watch the debate in the House of Lords.
Tracey Brown, Sense about Science said: “Lord Lester’s Bill is the first time in over a century that there has been a case for fundamental reform before Parliament. We are delighted that the Government has responded. The Libel Reform Campaign, supported by over 50,000 people and many leading commentators, will continue doing all we can to ensure that the Minister’s response to the debate today is translated into meaningful change in the lives of bloggers, science writer, NGOs and small publications facing threats and bankruptcy under the current laws.”
Libel reform announced in Queen’s Speech (2012)
On 9th May 2012, the Queen announced in her speech to Parliament that the Government will introduce a law “to protect freedom of speech and reform the law of defamation”.
Simon Singh, defendant in British Chiropractic Association v Singh: “I continue to be contacted by journalists, scientists and others who are being silenced by libel threats or libel claims. The reform promised in the Queen’s speech today is a welcome response to the intolerable effects of the current laws. I hope that the Government will now move rapidly to bring forward a bill that protects those writing about serious matters in the public interest.”
The Defamation Act (2013)
The Defamation Bill was granted Royal Assent to become the Defamation Act 2013 on Thursday 25th April 2013.
Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science said: “A campaign of small organisations, thousands of individuals and good parliamentarians has achieved changes that were denied to citizens and publishers for a century. We didn’t have resources but we had the weight of mounting injustice and the pressure from citizens to talk freely about their society, evidence, culture and the behaviour of powerful people within it. There are many compromises in the Defamation Act. But restrictions on trivial claims, a stronger defence of fair comment, and a new public interest defence will help writers everywhere to decide what to publish based on ‘is it true?’ rather than ‘will they sue?’”
Published: 18 April 2017