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Decision in Dawkins, and Jones libel case

30th March 2012

The High Court ruled today that most of an 18 month libel case over a book review should be struck out.

The libel case was brought by self-published author Chris McGrath over reviews of his book by blogger Vaughan Jones. Mr McGrath also sued and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS) whose websites hosted the unfavourable comments, and Professor Richard Dawkins as head of the Foundation.

The judge had to decide whether there was a case to answer and ruled that the case against Richard Dawkins, Amazon and RDFRS should not continue because they were not liable for the words. The case against Vaughan Jones may be struck out, subject to agreement with the claimant of an injunction against repeating some of the words in his review. The claimant has to pay 60% of Professor Dawkins’, the Foundation’s and Amazon’s costs, with an interim payment of £75,000 in 3 months.

An internet posting read by about 200 people which alleged that an author was a “creationist” has resulted in High Court litigation. Pre-trial proceedings have taken around 18 months. Costs have been astronomical.

Simon Singh, science writer and defendant in British Chiropractic Association v Singh: “The pressure, both emotional and financial, faced by all the defendants in this case has been extraordinary and unreasonable. It is easy to see why many back down when faced with a libel threat, even if they are confident that what they have written is correct and in the public interest. I am glad that these defendants have been courageous enough to take on the immense risks associated with being a libel defendant.”

Tracey Brown, Sense About Science: “There are no winners here. This case has taken years and cost the courts and everyone concerned a ridiculous amount of money, and nothing has been achieved by it except a chill on what people are prepared to discuss in public. The current laws don’t protect reputation, they serve vanity. The Libel Reform Campaign is arguing that a higher threshold of seriousness and stronger defences, particularly a public interest defence, would end the threat of ruinous, lengthy court proceedings. At the moment, trivial cases are causing a chilling effect that is far from trivial.”

Jonathan Heawood, English PEN, part of the Libel Reform Campaign: “No-one likes a bad book review but these should only be the subject of a libel action in the most exceptional circumstances. Reviews are almost always an expression of opinion, not a statement of fact. And we are all entitled to our opinions.”

Jo Glanville, Index on Censorship, part of the Libel Reform Campaign: “This case demonstrates the urgent need for libel reform and for legislation that addresses the impact of the digital revolution, protecting ISPs, websites and search engines from groundless threats. Libel reform that would oblige claimants to approach authors of material first would mean Richard Dawkins, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science would never have been drawn into this case.”

Dr Evan Harris, Policy Advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign: “This is exactly the sort of case that should never even have got off the ground. We need the planned reform of libel laws to include a new, higher hurdle before cases can proceed so that trivial and vexatious claims like this get thrown out at the start.”