Stephen Curry (http://blogs.nature.com/scurry/2010/11/10/libel-reform-not-there-yet ) has alerted us to the need to reform the English (sic, it’s better in Scotland) libel laws. Briefly, any organization or persons, can practice bad or questionable science and defend themselves from criticism by suing the challenger. This is far worse than, say, in the US though there other asymmetric laws benefitting the rich and powerful there. From SC:
The British cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst was reported in 2007 to have made remarks critical of a clinical trial involving a medical device made by NMT Medical. He is now being sued for libel.
The case is complex and I have not mastered the detail. I have, however, grasped one essential fact. Dr Wilmshurst’s comments were made in the United States. His words were reported on a US medical website, Heartwire (www.theheart.org). NMT Medical is an American company. But Wilmshurst is not being sued in America, where the right to freedom of expression is robustly enshrined in the constitution. Instead he is being taken to court in England, where the libel laws allow foreign individuals and corporations much freer rein.
The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have already signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign
I’ve signed. So have 50,000 others. It’s not just scientists, though science requires scientists to speak out against what they feel to be bad. The law is a blunt weapon but a powerful one and needs changing in this respect.