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Aug 19 2010

US government stands up for free speech

Those of you who follow alt-med quackery and science-based-medicine skepticism will be familiar with the absolutely ridiculous jurisprudence that is England’s libel laws. In the US , it is up to the plaintiff in a libel suit to prove that the allegations made against them are false (i.e., if I accuse you of practicing quack medicine, you merely have to show that your standards of practice meet industry regulation to win your libel suit). In the UK, however, defendants must prove their allegations true (i.e., if I sue you for calling me a quack, you have to prove I am one). This may seem like a semantic distinction, or even a more fair system (e.g., you call me a pedophile, you’ve got to prove it or else it’s slander); however, it has repeatedly been used by medical charlatans to silence criticism by skeptics.

A famous example (at least among the health skeptic community) is the case of Simon Singh, a medical journalist who wrote a column critical of the wild claims being made by the British Chiropractic Association. For those of you who don’t know, chiropractic is, at its heart, the belief that all disease (yes, all disease) is caused by misalignments of the spine. Controlled scientific studies of chiropractic have shown that it can be effective for treatment of back pain (as can physiotherapy and massage), but that other claims of being able to cure infectious disease or chronic conditions like asthma are unsubstantiated and false. Simon Singh said as much in his column, and was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

“So what?” you might be saying “Just go into court, show the judge the studies, no problem!” We are lulled by television into thinking that court cases are decided quickly and cheaply. Even open-and-shut cases can, if the legal teams are unscrupulous enough, drag on for months and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Simon Singh doesn’t have that kind of money. What the BCA (and those of their ilk) hope when they file these suits is that the defendants will settle out of court and drop the suit because they cannot afford to pay the exorbitant fees (in North America we call such suits ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation’ or SLAPP suits). There are anti-SLAPP laws on the books to prevent large companies from silencing poorer critics.

The UK, however, is a haven for such suits, allowing defendants to be placed on trial in British courts, and making non-Brits subject to the rulings of those courts. If the defendants do even the smallest amount of business in the UK, they can be sued under UK libel statutes.

Luckily, the US government has stepped in and made that a thing of the past:

President Barack Obama has signed into law new legislation protecting US writers from foreign libel judgements. The Speech Act, recently passed by Congress, makes foreign libel rulings virtually unenforceable in US courts. The act targets “libel tourists” who launch cases in countries whose legal systems are considered far more claimant-friendly, such as the UK.

This is good news for skeptics in the States who want to speak out against quacks in the UK. Canada has similar libel statutes to the UK (our entire judicial system is cribbed from England’s, so this should come as no surprise), but luckily the Supreme Court of Canada recently passed anti-SLAPP legislation, and Ontario appears poised to follow Quebec’s lead and enact provincial laws to do the same. Free speech shouldn’t be held up by spurious lawsuits designed to silence criticism. Of course, as Orac pointed out to me in an e-mail, this doesn’t protect US writers from being sued, nor does it prevent those judgments from being enforced in the UK (essentially barring convicted defendants from traveling anywhere in the UK). All it does is protect American courts from having to enforce the results of foreign libel suits.

It’s at least a step in the right direction.

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