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Free speech is not for sale

Professor Edzard Ernst explains how the Simon Singh case has led to a campaign to change libel laws.

A massive campaign is on its way to reform English libel law. Currently the law treats anyone accused of libellous comments as guilty until proven innocent. The defendant has to prove that his/her statements were not libellous rather than the other way around.

This makes any defence difficult and costly. On average, libel cases cost about 140 times more in England than elsewhere; and even if the case is eventually won, the defendant can be hundreds of thousands of pounds out of pocket.

In the area of healthcare, this has potentially disastrous consequences, particularly in CAM where controversial claims abound. When Simon Singh challenged the views of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) in a comment piece for the Guardian, for instance, the BCA sued him for libel. Even though this case is still in its very early stages, Singh is already £100,000 out of pocket. English libel law often means that it is legal muscle that wins.

Simon Singh's case provided the impetus for a large-scale protest. About 20,000 signatures were produced for petitions to Downing Street. Now English PEN and Index on Censorship have joined the growing movement to change libel law. Their slogan: Free speech is not for sale.

I urge all readers of this blog to sign up to the petition. English libel law is wrong, and it should be changed – if only for its detrimental effects on progress in healthcare.

Professor Edzard Ernst