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Campaigners call for wider libel reform

An array of science advocates descended on Britain’s parliament today to tell politicians that their attempts to fix Britain’s woeful libel laws were inadequate.

In response to growing concerns that England’s laws make it easy for the rich and powerful to silence voices they dislike, drafts of a new law on defamation were released in May (see ‘English libel reform to bring peer-review protection‘). A major driver behind this reform has been a campaign by scientists and science writers, who have highlighted the attempts of others to sue them over research and articles about scientific topics (Nature has supported the campaign).

Yesterday, Member of Parliament Robert Flello said in a hearing on the draft bill that protections offered to peer-reviewed statements were vital. “There is no greater example of the chilling effect of our current legislation than what has happened to scientists of late,” he said. In the same debate, justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said that “a core concern underlying our commitment to reforming the law is to protect scientific and academic debate from the threat of unjustified libel proceedings.”

But today supporters of the Libel Reform Campaign presented a 60,000-signature petition to the government asking for even bolder reform. The campaign says that there is still not a proper defence of ‘public interest’ against libel claims. Such a defence would allow researchers discussing matters of public interest to be free of fear of lawsuits. The campaigners also want measures to make it harder for companies to sue individuals.

Evan Harris, a former Member of Parliament and a policy adviser to the reform campaign, said in a statement: “It is sad to see parliamentary time being spent on a bill which so far fails to live up to the promises made to deliver effective libel reform made in all three of the parties’ manifestos.”

The reform bill — which has cross-party support — has just completed its passage through the committee stage, and there is still time for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to make amendments to it before it becomes law.


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