Thursday, 10 December 2009

Free speech is not for sale

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Things are hotting up in the campaign to reform England's archaic and unfair libel laws with the launch today of the Libel Reform Campaign which brings together three organisations who have been working separately on the issue up til now - PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. For the past year PEN and Index have been working on the issue and in November released a report which makes ten very clear recommendations about how the law should be changed so that it can no longer be used as a way to bully dissenters into silence. Meanwhile Sense About Sense galvanized support for Simon Singh in his libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association, through the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign. They have now pooled their resources (and got funding from the Open Society Institute) in the new campaign - which is using the strapline Free Speech is Not For Sale.

Today's launch at the Law Society in Central London featured an appropriately diverse line-up of scientists, performers and secularists (many of whom, I was glad to see, have written for New Humanist and/or will be performing at Nine Lessons). after intros from John Kampfner for Index, Jonathan Heawood for PEN, and Tracey Brown from Sense About Science (doesn't seem quite right to refer to them as 'SAS') the big-name guests were asked to say a few words about why they supported the campaign and sign a petition. Dara O Briain was up first, followed by Simon Singh, Raymond Tallis, Alexei Sayle, Richard Wiseman, Anthony Grayling, Dave Gorman, Robin Ince, Marcus Chown, Jim Al Khalil, Edzard Ernest - each were pleasingly pithy and many very funny, including the lawyer who spoke at the end (didn't catch his name but he is representing Peter Wilmshurst in his libel case) who said of the notorious Justice Eady, with pointed sarcasm, "Far be it from me to criticise one of the best legal minds this country has. He [Eady] has forgotten more law than I will ever know."

Lib Dem MP (and staunch secularist) Evan Harris spoke at the end about the political prospects - and was quite upbeat about the possibility of getting a commitment to libel reform into election manifestos for all three parties (he said once one of them puts it in the rest are likely to follow just in case it's a vote winner). Justice Secretary Jack Straw has made positive noises, although whether he will be in a position to do anything much about it remains to be seen.

Needless to say the Rationalist Association strongly supports the idea of reform, and the sensible ideas laid out in the Index/PEN report.

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DM said...
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