In a substantial victory for free speech, freedom of the press, scientific discourse, and skepticism, last Wednesday the British Parliament agreed on a sweeping new defamation bill that significantly reforms that country’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws.
Following a three-and-a-half year effort, the law now only awaits formal assent by the Queen, which is expected shortly. The campaign to bring the law in line with libel legalities in the United States and most of Western Europe began with the case launched by the British Chiropractic Association against the noted science journalist and author, Simon Singh, in a typical example of bringing suit in order to chill free speech.
In 2008, following the release of his book, “Trick or Treat: Alternative Medicine on Trial” (written with Edzard Ernst), a scathing and thoroughly researched critique of alternative medicine, Singh wrote an opinion piece for “The Guardian” on the occasion of Chiropractic Awareness Week. Therein, Singh called out The British Chiropractic Association for its “claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”
The BCA took exception to, among other things, Singh’s use of the word “bogus,” and launched a libel case against the writer. This is a case that, it is fair to say, would not have gotten to first base in the United States, thanks among other things to that clever little list we call the Bill of Rights that was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, which the Supreme Court has routinely call on to guide its approach to libel, based on the guarantee of freedom of the press assured by the First Amendment. U.S. Libel Law also took a giant leap forward about fifty years ago in the famous 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, which required demonstration of “absolute malice” in order to win a libel case against the press. Despite some remaining and regrettable compromises in the newly proposed British bill, nevertheless that nation has now been dragged kicking and screaming into either the late American 18th century or the mid-20th century, depending on the generosity of the observer’s interpretation.
Indeed, the routine abuse of the UK libel laws had become an international embarrassment for that country’s lawmakers, as the country become known for “libel terrorism,” in which people would use the regressive system to sue and often win expensive judgments against residents of other countries. In one such recent case, the American author and academic, Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, was sued in London by an Arab businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, whom she had named as a supporter of terrorism in her book, “Funding Evil.” The suit was filed in the UK based on the fact that, even though the book was not published in that country, a mere 23 copies were sold there online. As an eventual result, President Obama supported and signed into law the so-called “SPEECH Act,” which protects American journalists from the overreaching excesses of the UK legal system. Although many years ago, Uri Geller was financially sanctioned in his attempted libel case against James Randi and CSICOP, perhaps the case might never have been filed at all if the British laws had been more balanced and frivolous suits more difficult to file at the time.
In Simon Singh’s case, after lengthy and extremely costly efforts – perhaps as much as 200,000 Euros in some estimates – Singh eventually prevailed in his defense against BCA, which dropped their case following a ruling against them by the court (that reversed an earlier ruling based on a bizarrely antiquated interpretation of the word “bogus”). By the time BCA’s effort was thwarted, however, the firestorm over the case had served to ignite a broader battle for nationwide libel reform.
In the early days of the case, however, matters looked foreboding for Singh. The BCA had sued him personally without suing the newspaper in which the piece appeared, and thus he would have to mount his defense on his own, an extremely expensive prospect that few journalists have the resources to undertake. When the initial ruling came down against Singh, indicating that he would have to prove that the BCA members know and believe their claims to be false (an all but impossible task, since many practitioners of bogus medicine sincerely believe in their own pseudoscientific claims), no one would have blamed Singh if he had backed down and apologized, discretion sometimes being wanly considered the better part of valor.
But instead, a small but passionate and vocal army of supporters, led by key players and elements of the UK skeptic movement, came to Singh’s aid. In the first year of the controversy, there was little public or media interest in the case, except for the steady drumbeat of support from skeptic and pro-science bloggers. Then a public meeting was called in May of 2009 which brought out a number of recognizable players from the worlds of science, show business, and politics, which led in turn to the scientific community – typically loathe to enter a public controversy – speaking out and taking sides, in the growing recognition that a victory against Singh would signal even worse long-term damage against free and open scientific discussion.
I have personally known Simon Singh for some years, since I first saw him speak in New York City about his book, “The Big Bang,” about the origins of the universe. Subsequently I had the chance to see the performance of a delightful and offbeat show he collaborated on in New York with our mutual friend and skeptical colleague, Richard Wiseman. And most recently, Simon was kind enough to join us in New York at the NECSS conference – the New York Conference on Science and Skepticism (about which I recently wrote on this blog). In addition to his individual presentation, I also interviewed Simon on stage about the BCA libel case, and it’s a lively and informative conversation that you can now watch in full in this video:
For those who may think that the concerns and expertise of the skeptic movement are somehow divorced from important issues that affect mainstream life, the Singh case, and the ensuing revolution in Britain’s libel laws, serve as a powerful lesson to the contrary. The skeptic movement has long concerned itself, since its modern inception, with “bogus” but testable claims of alternative medicine. At the same time, skeptics arm our consumer advocacy concerns with expertise about toxic nonsense, an expertise that is severely lacking in the media and even among many public figures who are called upon to speak for science and medicine and consumer advocacy.
In this case, this longstanding concern and expertise literally led the opening volleys in the battle of Simon Singh versus the BCA, in turn just one battle in a larger war for free speech and scientific journalism. What could be any more important than examining the legitimacy of medical claims and the rights of journalists and scientists to publicly debate science in a free society? Maybe those who deride “Bigfoot Skepticism” should change that label to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness Skepticism.” That seems to me like something important enough to fight for.Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.