British Legislators Struggle to Protect Scientific Free Speech

Several recent articles from abroad raise an interesting issue regarding outside influences that bear on the scientific community.  Under current British law, scientists who voice opposition can be sued for libel.  The articles describe two recent cases where corporations threatened experts with colossally expensive lawsuits for raising concerns about unsafe products and unscrupulous practices.  For instance, a medical-device manufacturer sued a cardiologist for raising “life threatening problems” with their products at a conference.  Unlike in the United States, where a libel plaintiff must prove falsity and actual malice, a British plaintiff need only show harm, while the defendant bears the burden of proving the statement was true

In response, British legislators are debating a statutory “public interest” defense, which would give immunity to scientists and academics who speak out in the public’s interest.  Continuing without such protections presents self-evident dangers for scientists.  Candid scientific discourse, especially on controversial issues that effect existing products, is severely restricted by corporations using the courthouse to bully experts into submission.  As the director of one scientific advocacy group put it: “While the libel laws are complicated the issues aren’t: do we want a society where people don’t speak out, or one where free and open discussion is possible?

Robust First Amendment rights protect American scientists from similar suits.  But what good are legal distinctions if British research (or in any country), upon which American researchers rely, is diminished?  The scientific community obviously cites and relies on research from around the world, not only from a researcher’s home country.  For instance, if legal fears cause a British medical journal to stifle criticism about an unsafe drug, the public harm is shared worldwide.  Undue legal pressures on scientists are of international consequence.  A statutory protection for scientific candor, made in the public interest, is a step in the right direction.

Two emblematic articles offering different prospectives:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/scientists-to-get-extra-protection-from-libel-8208100.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2012/jul/09/defamation-bill-scientific-free-speech

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