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Cases galvanize libel reform movement

A gavel and sound block.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: In English legal circles today, all eyes were on a London courtroom. An appeal was being heard in the libel case of Simon Singh. To the extent you might have heard something about the case, you probably figured English libel laws couldn't really make much of a difference over here.

Marketplace's Rico Gagliano explains that is not necessarily so.


RICO GAGLIANO: Last night, around 300 people packed the Old Monk Pub in London. Not just to drink. They came to show support for this guy...

SIMON SINGH: I'm Simon Singh. I'm a science writer, and I write science books.

Simon Singh's become more than a writer, though. He's become a free-speech symbol, ever since the Guardian newspaper ran his article criticizing chiropractors, medical practitioners who manipulate the spine.

SINGH: I was really concerned about how chiropractors often treat children for conditions that seem to have nothing to do with the spine. Things like asthma and colic and ear infections.

In his article, Singh called those treatments quote "bogus," which prompted the British Chiropractic Association to sue him for libel.

Whether he wins or loses, Singh's case and others like it have sparked a popular movement to reform U.K. libel laws. Laws which critics say have made London the libel capital of the world.

PADRAIG REIDY: The problem with our laws is that they are very much weighted towards privacy and reputation and against free expression.

That's Padraig Reidy of the group Index on Censorship. Unlike the U.S., Reidy says Britain has no constitutional protection for freedom of speech. And he says you don't even have to be British to sue for libel there, you just need to have had your reputation besmirched in Britain.

REIDY: You know, Tom Cruise or Cameron Diaz. They can sue American publications in this country. As a result, for example, you cannot view the National Enquirer Web site in the U.K. anymore. Because the National Enquirer, for example, is so conscious of this problem.

Reform groups propose several changes in the law. Everything from making trials shorter and more affordable to restricting libel suits against certain types of speech. But some say many of these proposals are overreactions which could do more harm than good.

Alistar Mullis is a professor of law at England's University of East Anglia.

ALISTAR MULLIS: There is a proposal to limit damages to 10,000 pounds. That strikes me as just wholly inadequate to reflect the harm that a serious libel can cause.

But with Britains from popular comedians to Parliament MPs clamoring for reform, some change seems likely. Especially in an election year.

In Los Angeles, I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

About the author

Rico Gagliano is the host of Dinner Party Download.

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