Libel laws and scientific debate
An old battle: England’s libel laws versus scientific debate
Richard Smith, director, UnitedHealth Chronic Disease Initiative
Several high profile cases have brought to the fore how England’s libel laws can stifle scientific debate, but as Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, explains, it is not a new problem
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The question of whether England’s libel laws are restricting scientific debate is currently high on the agenda because of prominent cases. Peter Wilmshurst, a Shrewsbury cardiologist, is being sued by a Boston company over his comments on a trial in which he participated. Simon Singh, the science writer, has a case against him brought by chiropractors, and Ben Goldacre, a doctor and author of the best selling Bad Science, is being repeatedly threatened.
Those unfamiliar with England’s libel laws might thus think that this is a new phenomenon. In fact libel obstructing scientific debate is a longstanding problem, and the BMJ was involved in one of the longest running libel cases in legal history.1
The BMJ published a study in May 1969 that showed that patients given the intravenous drug methohexitone had various abnormal physiological responses.2 These responses may have explained why some patients had died while being anaesthetised