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Richard Dawkins addresses Lib Dem conference

On Sunday 20th September, Professor Richard Dawkins put the case for libel law reform to the Liberal Democrat conference while proposing an amendment to the civil liberties bill.

Read Richard Dawkin's speech

Watch video of Richard Dawkins addressing Liberal Democrat Conference

Richard Dawkins addresses Lib Dem conferenceThe scientist and author appears as a guest speaker at Liberal Democrat Party Conference. He will tell the conference that the chilling effect of libel laws on public debate about science and medicine, on writers and authors and on responsible journalism can no longer be ignored. The Lib Dem conference has given its permission for Professor Dawkins - who is not a party member - to address the conference.

Dr Evan Harris MP and Professor Richard Dawkins will be speaking as part of a debate on a motion on Civil Liberties, to which the following amendment was tabled:

Conference calls for: “17. The protection of freedom of expression, by reforming the libel laws in England and Wales to ensure that a better balance is provided between free speech, responsible journalism, scientific discourse and the public interest on the one hand and powerful corporations, wealthy individuals and vested interests on the other.”

Professor Dawkins said “The effects of England’s libel laws are especially pernicious where science is concerned” and that action must be taken to stop the law being “ridiculed as an international charter for litigious mountebanks. I urge the Liberal Democrats to support the call for reform, and hope that Labour and the Conservatives will follow, so that we can get cross-party support on this vital issue.”

There are long-standing concerns that English libel laws give too much power to the claimant, leading to a ‘chilling effect’ whereby writers are unable to critically analyse scientific and medical claims, for fear of legal action.

Comments 

Dr Evan Harris MP, the party’s Science spokesman and one of the leaders of the campaign who submitted the amendment, said: “Liberal Democrats have a proud record on protecting free speech and we must now also recognise that balance in defamation is not right. It is shameful that London is regarded as the ‘libel capital of the world’ - where vested interests from around the globe can exploit our antiquated libel laws to silence valid criticism. The law needs to be better balanced towards free expression, responsible journalism and the public interest and away from the rich and powerful vested interests.”

Sile Lane, Sense About Science, who is coordinating the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign, said: “Today’s debate is a great step forward in recognising that the chilling, stultifying effect of the English libel laws - on scientific debates and other important public discussions – has become dangerous and intolerable.”

Nick Ross, Broadcaster said: “If you think you support English libel laws, go and watch how they’re applied! It is not edifying - it is painfully long-winded, mired in esoteric rules, and colossally expensive. Of course people should have a right to challenge if they feel defamed. But not the way we do it. Not through indulgence of costly and adversarial lawyers and a dogged adherence to custom and practice. And a public interest defence should, by default, exempt controversies in science.”

Stephen Fry, Broadcaster and Author said: “Freedom in politics, in thought and in speech followed the rise of empirical science which refused to take anything on trust, on faith, on hope or even on reason. When a powerful organisation tries to silence a man of Simon Singh’s reputation then anyone who believes in science, fairness and the truth should rise in indignation.”

A conference fringe event debating Defending free speech - Keep libel laws out of science organised by Dr Prateek Buch and involving Sile Lane, Dr Simon Singh, Dr Ben Goldacre, Nick Cohen and Dr Evan Harris MP takes place on Sunday 20th September in Highcliff Marriott Hotel, Blandford Syndicate 3 between 13.00 and 14.15.

Coverage from the event

The Guardian  Robin Ince: Why I’m backing Simon Singh and reform of English libel law

The Guardian  Comedians boost libel reform with benefit gig