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English libel reform may explicitly protect scientific conference reports

England’s libel laws are set for a major reform under proposals outlined by the country’s government today, at least partly in response to campaigning by researchers. The reforms may even provide explicit protection for reports of academic conferences.

A series of high profile cases – including that of Simon Singh vs the British Chiropractic Association – have caused widespread concern that England’s libel laws are stifling scientific debate. (Nature has supported the campaign to reform libel laws.)

Ken Clarke, the UK Justice Secretary, today admitted that researchers had been muzzled by the threat of lawsuits and announced that anyone making a statement of fact or expressing an ‘honest opinion’ will have a defence under the reformed laws in England and Wales.

“The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society,” he said (statement). “In recent years though, the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism.”

The bill suggests that ‘qualified privilege’ – a defence that can be claimed if sued for libel – should specifically apply to fair and accurate reports of the proceedings of academic conferences. Although the consultation notes that meetings may already be protected in some circumstances “we consider that a specific provision would be helpful”.

Also in the government proposals are a public interest defence and a clamp down on libel tourism – where claims that have little relationship to the UK are brought under the country’s laws. Those wishing to prove they have been defamed will also have to show a statement has caused “substantial harm”.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said he would invite key scientists to discuss the bill during the current consultation phase.

“This Bill is good news for science,” he said (statement). “However, the work does not stop here. I encourage all who care about protecting scientific debate to respond to the consultation – tell us what works and what should be improved.”

The consultation runs until 10 June.


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