Science writer sued . . . for being right?

In 2008, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued English science writer Simon Singh for an article he wrote in The Guardian called, “Beware the Spinal Trap.” He criticized the BCA for claiming that, by manipulating the spine, they can effectively treat certain childhood conditions.

London, as the unofficial “libel capital of the world,” puts the burden of proof on the defendant. So if I sue you for something you wrote about me, it’s up to you to prove that there wasn’t a malicious intent. Ben Goldacre, an English psychiatrist, was sued in 2008 for arguing that the vitamins Matthias Rath used to cure AIDS were ineffective. Goldacre won his case after 19 months, but still had to pay his legal fees.

Comedian Alexei Sayle was sued for libel once, saying, “It was a horrible experience.” Though he won his case, he also had to spend an exhaustive amount of time and money defending himself, saying “It would have been cheaper if I’d just stabbed the fucker.

But English libel is not restricted to the UK. “Libel tourism” is the phenomenon of using English libel from other countries. Rachel Enrenfeld, American author of Funding Evil (2003), was sued in 2005 by a Saudi Arabian businessman residing in Ireland. Her book wasn’t published in the UK, but 23 copies were shipped there via the Internet. She lost US$230,000, and was ordered to apologize and destroy all remaining books. The Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet was sued for criticizing the shady financial practices of Kaupthing, an Icelandic Bank, resulting in issuing an apology and paying £100,000. Kaupthing collapsed six months later, along with the rest of the Icelandic economy.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2008 said, “Practical application of the law of libel has served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work.” As a result, some countries are considering passing laws to protect their citizens from English libel, such as by no longer exporting free press to the UK, or by restricting websites by location.

The BCA went to court on May 7 2009, claiming that when Singh wrote that the BCA “happily promotes bogus treatments,” he meant that they knowingly lied. Singh, however, contested that he meant that they were promoting claims that they sincerely believed were true, but were actually false. Singh lost his case (and £100,000), but filed for appeal on June 4. At this time, science bloggers began complaining to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) — the “advertisement watchdog” — with examples of false advertisements by chiropractors.

On June 8, the chair of the McTimony Chiropractic Association emailed members, warning, “The target of the campaigners is now any claims for treatment that cannot be substantiated with chiropractic research.” He called it a “witch hunt against chiropractors,” advising members to shut down their websites — as if expecting evidence for medical claims is unreasonable. Indeed, hundreds of chiropractors’ websites were soon taken down, and on October 14, Singh was granted a full appeal.

On December 9, the Coalition for Libel Reform (including human rights charities English PEN and Sense About Science, and campaigning publishing organization Index on Censorship) urged politicians to support a bill to change the law in the interest of free speech. Singh now faces the three most senior judges in the UK. His hearing on Feb. 23, 2010 held so many activists that one lawyer commented that usually only major multiple murder trials draw such a crowd. The Lord Chief Justice was “baffled” that the case had gotten so far, unsure why the BCA hadn’t just written a rebuttal in 2008.

After Alan Hennes from blogged last year about an ASA policy that chiropractors must adhere to, campaigners “Googled” the entire BCA membership list, seeking misleading ads. As of this month, 25 per cent of chiropractors in Britain are under investigation — all because they picked on the little guy.

Lee MacPherson is a fourth-year science student who advocates science-based medicine and free speech.