Richard Dawkins: Libel rules create atmosphere of fear for scientists

The Liberal Democrats have backed a call from the controversial scientist, Richard Dawkins, for reform of the libel laws.

Professor Dawkins, best-selling author of The God Delusion, made a guest appearance at the party’s Bournemouth conference yesterday to speak out against ‘pernicious’ rules which had created a ‘climate of fear’ for scientists.

Dawkins said that because of the way the libel law was ‘skewed’ towards the plaintiff, London had become the ‘libel capital of the world’.

He said: “Of course there must be redress if you are maliciously attacked in a way that damages you.

“But if such a law is cast too wide it has disastrous consequences on the public interest – not least in the areas of science and medicine where the stakes are high … and the vulnerable need to be protected from unproven or fraudulent claims or cures.”

Dawkins, a supporter of the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign, was invited to speak at the conference despite not being a member of the Liberal Democrat party.

He used the opportunity to highlight the case of science writer Simon Singh who is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association over an article he wrote for the Guardian.

Singh is set go to an oral hearing at the Court of Appeal later this year seeking permission to challenge an earlier decision by the court over the libel action.

Dawkins told the conference that if Singh lost his case it would have major implications on the freedom of scientists as he urged the BCA to submit its case to the ‘higher court of scientific test’ rather than pursue a case against Singh.

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth urged delegates to back Dawkins’ amendment to a motion on civil liberties, saying it was important libel law was revamped so that it couldn’t be used to close down scientific debate.

Howarth said the party would work on a set of radical proposals to prevent England becoming the destination of choice for libel tourists.

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