Observations Philosophically Speaking

End libel law’s chilling effect on science

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c339 (Published 21 January 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c339
  1. A C Grayling, professor of philosophy, Birkbeck College, University of London
  1. a.grayling{at}bbk.ac.uk

    A change in the libel laws is a matter of the first urgency for medicine, science—and the public good

    Part of almost every issue of the journal you hold in your hands is read by a lawyer checking for statements that could spark a libel action by a person or organisation named in or identifiable from its pages. If the lawyer has doubts, the result is a debate about whether to publish, a major consideration being that even if the BMJ is confident it can win if sued, the huge expense of defending an action makes winning scarcely worthwhile.

    This is well known to those who sue, and they rely on that fact to get a retraction or settlement, even when they know they are on thin ice. The result is that debate and criticism—perhaps relating to important matters of public interest—are silenced. This is bad for science, medicine, and, by extension, everyone else.

    The reason for this profoundly unsatisfactory situation is the nature of English libel law and the expense of defending against libel suits. The law is, as the wildly …

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