Now I know that every skeptic and freethinker on the blogosphere, and I am ashamed that I had to look up how to spell that, has mentioned this already and I am pretty sure that I have done so myself in the past. However this is an issue that I feel strongly about and which, to be honest, anyone who cares about free speech should feel strongly about as well.
As you no doubt know the libel laws in the UK are a joke. Not only are they around 150 times more expensive than else where in Europe but, unlike most laws, they also seem to operate on a guilty until proven innocent basis. Combine this with the fact that the UK libel laws can be brought to bare against anyone anywhere in the world if the thing they are commenting on has so much as looked in the general direction of the UK and you have a pretty effective tool for people of questionable scruples to use for silencing those who, often quiet legitimately, speak out against them. No where are these issues clearer than with regards to skeptical hero Simon Singh and his on going battle against the forces of evil the British Chiropractic Association.
With these problems in mind the people behind Sense About Science have launched The Libel Reform Campaign. The idea behind this campaign is to, unsurprisingly, get the UK libel laws reformed to not only bring the cost down but to stop them being used as a weapon by people world wide whose arguments have trouble standing up to the light of day.
Now I know that some times things like this can seem as though they really don’t have anything to do with our daily lives. However if you are reading this then there is a good chance that, like the rest of us at the League of Reason, you have strong opinions and like to express them, you care about free speech and, possibly most importantly, place high a value on the truth. The UK libel laws in their current form threaten all of these things. The high price and misplaced burden of proof mean that people often self censor regarding issues that we, as the general public, need to know about. If an organisation, rather than demonstrating the safety and efficacy of their product, can simply threaten with libel and thus scare into silence those who would speak out against them then we all suffer. Dangerous and ineffective products make their way onto the market place while the voices of reason remain in hiding for fear of draconian laws and mammoth legal bills.
As a skeptic and someone who blogs sometimes about controversial issues, and is therefore putting myself, as all of you who blog do, in the position where I may fall victim to these laws, this is something that I worry about. Unlike Simon Singh I really don’t have the money to fight a libel case and as such am left with the choices of immediately backing down to any challenge or enacting a form of self censorship in everything I write. As someone who cares about free speech I don’t like that these are really my only options.
So by now I am sure you are asking yourself what you can do to help? Well you can start by signing this online petition and then dropping and email to your local MP, and don’t worry the website will even write the thing and find the correct MP for you. Isn’t that nice. Together we can make a difference and already the Lib Dems have said they will make libel reform a major issue for their party in the next general elections. But what we need is to get all the political parties involved and a firm commitment form them to do something about this. And remember this affects those of you living outside the UK as well as currently the UK libel laws can be brought to bare on you as well. So sign that petition now nag damn it.
For more information on the history of Simon Singh’s case and the problems with UK libel law then check out Crispian Jago’s excellent Ladybird Book of Chiropractic Treatment & English Libel Law.