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A victory for freedom of speech

Edzard Ernst explains why Simon Singh's victory at the High Court means that public health will be improved.

Last week, after two years of legal action, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) abandoned their libel suit against my friend and co-author Simon Singh .

Simon had disclosed that claims made by the BCA, chiropractors can treat conditions such as childhood asthma, otitic colic etc, were unsubstantiated. Because he wrote this as a Guardian comment, he did not use scientific but rather more colloquial language e.g. 'bogus' and 'not a jot of evidence'. The BCA objected and, even though the Guardian offered them to publish a rebuttal, they sued Simon personally.

What followed was an expensive, prolonged battle about what meaning should be attributed to Simon's words. When, at the appeal stage, the judges decided in his favour, the BCA caved in. The result of all this is that my friend lost a lot of his hard-earned money on legal fees and could not work on anything else for almost two years which means, as a freelance science writer, he was not earning anything. Also, as he himself admits, his life was turned into a living nightmare.

The BCA have wasted a small fortune of their funds, and ~600 chiropractors find themselves before their conduct committee because Simon's supporters questioned claims made on their websites which were similar to those made by the BCA.

But not all is doom and gloom. Simon's victory has, I think, at least two important and encouraging ramifications which reach far beyond this specific case. Firstly, he managed to galvanise ~50000 supporters for his initiative to change English libel law. We strongly feel that scientific debates have no place in the courtroom. All major parties have realized that this awful law needs changing and we are confident that this will happen soon.

Secondly, unsubstantiated claims, which are ubiquitous in CAM, will now come under more general fire. A recent review of chiropractic claims in the English-speaking world concluded that 'the majority of chiropractors and their associations …make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence'.

In fact, most CAM practitioners seem to have no idea what evidence really is and thus have a long tradition of making the most unbelievable claims. This is, of course, not just irritating; it is a significant risk to public health. It is time therefore to get cracking and change this deplorable situation.

So, out of a lot of misery and hardship emerge two important initiatives that will, if successful, improve public health as well as freedom of speech. We all owe Simon a great debt for being so stubbornly brave.

Professor Edzard Ernst