Feature Medicine and the Media

Libel law reform: a new era of free speech in science?

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h94 (Published 08 January 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h94
  1. Siobhain Butterworth, general counsel, BMJ, London WC1H 9JR
  1. sbutterworth{at}bmj.com

The campaign to change English libel law often referred to three high profile cases related to medicine. Siobhain Butterworth considers whether these might still have been brought under the new rules and whether they have reduced the law’s global “chilling effect” on such scientific discourse

The Defamation Act 2013 came into force a year ago in England, accompanied by a fanfare: “The Act is a major step to reforming our libel laws. Restrictions on trivial and vexatious claims, a new public interest defence, protection for peer reviewed papers and limitations on corporations’ ability to sue for libel will help scientists and science publishers everywhere,” said Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, which campaigned with free speech groups English Pen and Index on Censorship to change libel law.1

Two brand new defences aimed specifically at scientific discourse should ensure that authors do not get sued over peer reviewed material in scientific or academic journals or reports of academic conferences.

But these defences would have been of little use to the journalist Simon Singh and the doctor and author Ben Goldacre, who found themselves embroiled in time consuming and expensive litigation after publishing their opinions in the Guardian newspaper. Nor would they have helped Peter Wilmshurst, a cardiologist sued after making comments to the media alleging flaws in a clinical trial.

Singh was sued in 2008 after writing that …

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