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United Kingdom Science

UK To Give Peer-Reviewed Science Libel Protection 101

Posted by Soulskill
from the about-bloody-time dept.
scibri writes "England is finally getting around to updating its notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws, which have been extensively criticized for stifling scientific debate in the past few years, such as in the case of Simon Singh. The government introduced a defamation bill last week that would extend explicit protection to statements in scientific or academic journals — providing the work was properly peer reviewed. The protection would also extend to reports of academic and scientific conferences. The proposed legislation is popular among the UK's researchers and journalists, but a similar law on whistleblower protection has had mixed reviews in the U.S."
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UK To Give Peer-Reviewed Science Libel Protection

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  • by Chuck Chunder (21021) on Monday May 14, 2012 @06:05PM (#40000573) Homepage Journal
    The Slashdot article seems to single out a single part of the bill for some reason. The actual bill [parliament.uk] has a lot more, including a "truth" defence.
  • Re:Peer review? (Score:4, Informative)

    by _xen (79742) on Monday May 14, 2012 @09:56PM (#40001991)

    The point is that the law is going to recognise that making a reasonable statement based on proper scientific data is demonstrably true, and as such cannot be libel.

    The better view is that it makes "scientific or academic journal[s]" (one presumes bona fide journals, though the Bill doesn't make it clear how that might be assessed.) a privileged forum, much as courts and parliament already are.

    The internationally recognised process of peer review will be considered the arbiter of "proper scientific data" (my phrase). It leaves the door open for cases involving poorly collected data

    By s7(5), a "fair and accurate copy of, extract from or summary" of the article is also privileged (again as is currently the case for court and parliamentary reporting).

    The problem, which you point to is that it somewhat misconstrues the role of peer review to understand it as a guarantee of finality (ie. the truth of the publication). Rather peer review is a threshold, a seat at the table of the expert debate. We, the ordinary "(wo)men in the street," need to put some time between publication and acceptance of the conclusions in order to allow the expert community to render their judgement.

  • Re:So you'd prefer (Score:5, Informative)

    by _xen (79742) on Monday May 14, 2012 @11:55PM (#40002419)

    You're using the common definition, not the legal one.

    Very funny, you tell a lawyer (albeit a non-practitioner) he is using the common defn and not the legal one and then you quote from an online dictionary. Now it may be the legal defn in the US, I would not want to venture an opinion.

    How do you explain that at common law truth was an irrelevance in criminal libel? Moreover in my jurisdiction, NSW, until 2006, truth by itself was no defence to defamation. More to the point, the UK [sic] 1952 Act and the proposed Bill, are explicit about justification and truth respectively being defences.

    The distinction between a tort (and also a crime) and a defence may seem like a fine one, but it relates to the mistake the "puppy-huffing kiddy-fiddler" made in observing that "all statements are presumed false."

    My understanding is this: The onus of proof lies upon a plaintiff to make out that the elements of defamation, namely that the defendant published defamatory imputations. While the courts (and we here rely on British as well as Australian precedent) have come up with a number of tests, perhaps the most accepted is that the imputation would lower the estimation of plaintiff in the eyes of a reasonable member of the community, or some similar formulation.

    It is open to the defendant to raise a defence. Because they are the party raising it the affirmanti principle applies, i.e. the onus of proof is on the defendant to establish the substantial truth of the statements. Hence it appears to the legally naive that statements are presumed false. As an analytical type you will perceive the difficulty inherent in the notion of a "defence of justification/truth" existing and the necessity of a plaintiff to establish untruth as an element of defamation, no?

    The current Bill makes this situation clear:

    2 Truth
    (1) It is a defence to an action for defamation for the defendant to show that the imputation conveyed by the statement complained is substantially true.

    My emphasis

    If it merely meant "saying bad things" it would also include mere insults and vulgar abuse, which are not legally defamatory

    I never said it meant "saying bad things". Simply put it means injuring the reputation of a natural person. Should you care for a real dictionary defn, (as opposed to my simplified legal one), the OED has "the action of defaming, or attacking any one's good name." If insults and vulgar abuse sufficiently damages an individual's reputation then they are defamatory of course.

    As to why Scotland has a separate system, your guess is as good as mine.

    That was not my question. My question was what distinguishes a UK General Public Act from either an Act of the Scottish Parliament or an Act of the English Parliament?

  • Re:So you'd prefer (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @03:38AM (#40003093)

    No. Scotland has always had a separate legal system, largely due to being an independent country until 1603. Neither legal system was imposed on the other nation at the time, and they've mostly remained separate since.

    Since the Scottish legal system is built on different principles to the English one, not all English Acts of Parliament apply to Scotland, although some do. Needless to say, it's complicated.

    In terms of libel, England and Scotland are very different, to the extent that libel isn't even a specific offence in Scotland. Rather, it's counted (along with slander) as defamation, with no distinction made between written and spoken defamation.

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