December 8, 2010
English laws on libel stifle scientific debate, not only in England but around the world.
There are three problems:
– English law is more favourable to the plaintiff than the laws in many other countries.
– The costs of defending a libel action in London are very high – from 100 000 euros for starters according to most estimates.
– The English courts are ready to hear a case even when there is only a very slight connection with England. In one notorious instance, the English courts awarded a Saudi billionaire tens of thousands of pounds against an author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, for a book she had written and published in America. The book was never published or offered for sale in England, but 23 copies were bought over the internet – sufficient grounds for the English courts to claim jurisdiction.
What has this got to do with science and medicine? Well a number of pharmaceutical companies and snake oil salesmen have tried to sue scientists in the English courts for commenting critically on the company’s products. The critical comments I’ve seen are no more than the ordinary “give and take” of robust debate on scientific issues, but even the threat of a libel action may be enough to force a withdrawal, an apology, or worse.
When I was working as a consumer advocate, I’m sure I must have said worse things about the claims of some companies, but that is no business of the English law courts. (We were once sued in the Dutch courts, but that is another story.)
To provide some protection to Americans who may be sued in London, President Obama signed earlier this year a law with the rather long title of H.R. 2765: Securing the Protection of Our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act
This law blocks in effect any attempt to enforce in the U.S. libel judgements from jurisdictions that do not offer the equivalent of U.S. free speech protection. (This law was brought in to fix a problem that needed fixing, but it may have bad effects on judicial cooperation in areas where such cooperation is desirable. )
I may return to the subject of legal threats by pharmaceutical companies but have a look at the reason why I bring up the subject now, which is an article by the great Ben Goldacre in the Guardian Online today. He describes some of the current problems and flags up a radio documentary that will be broadcast on the BBC World Service tonight and later.
The British government has promised changes in the law, to what extent is not known, but campaigners for reform are keeping up the pressure. Good luck to them.
In the meantime, mind what you say, especially if you publish a blog.Author : Jim Murray