Warning: UK Libel Law May be Hazardous to Your Health

It seems that the American Congress is not the only group enraged by England’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws.  Sense About Science, a British charity that promotes public understanding of science, is lobbying the British Parliament to amend its libel laws in a campaign called Keep Libel Laws Out of Science

The impetus for the campaign is a recent court ruling against Simon Singh, co-author of the book Trick or Treatment?, based on an article he wrote for the Guardian.  According to a later article in the Guardian summarizing Singh’s legal predicament (the original article has been removed, but an archived copy can be found here), Singh describes claims by chiropractors that they “can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying” as “bogus” and without “a jot of evidence,” and criticizes the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for “happily promot[ing]” them.  The BCA sued Singh for libel, and Justice Eady of the British High Court, in a preliminary hearing, essentially ruled that “by the mere use of the word ‘bogus’ Simon Singh was stating that, as a matter of fact, the BCA were being consciously dishonest in promoting chiropractic for those children’s ailments” (emphasis in original.)  The full text of the judge’s decision can be found here.

While Singh’s article is certainly not a paragon of balanced – or even very good – writing, it is clearly an expression of his opinion on the shortcomings of chiropractic treatment, and would almost certainly be protected by the First Amendment were it to have been written and published in the United States.  While all efforts to use the legal system to stifle public debate make me bristle, as a former science student – I was a biochemistry major in college – I am particularly galled when lawyers seek to gag those trying to inform the public on matters of science and medicine. 

Although the First Amendment’s protections were intended primarily to secure political speech, in my mind it is just as important for the public to be well informed about health issues, including the scientific evidence supporting or tending to disprove the efficacy or safety of various mainstream or alternative medical treatments.  Public misinformation on settled medical questions can be surprisingly difficult to correct, and reliance on such misinformation can have very serious personal and public health ramifications.  The fear of litigation imposed by overly liberal libel laws stifle free debate on the efficacy of health treatments, whether mainstream or “alternative,” and prevent both patients and practitioners from making fully informed decisions about their health.

(Lee Baker is a rising second-year law student at Harvard Law School and a CMLP legal intern.  He will admit to having drunk the Kool-Aid of evidence based medicine)


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