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England's libel laws don't just gag me, they blindfold you

blankI spent Tuesday night at the Barley Mow pub in Westminster, central London, surrounded by 150 people who were outraged at the state of English libel laws. The event, which is part of a series of Skeptics in the Pub events around the country, started with a misquote from Star Wars that set the tone of optimism for the entire evening: “We are more possible than you can powerfully imagine.”

The mob, clamouring for a more liberal approach to free speech, was made up largely of bloggers, academics and sceptics. They all passionately share the same belief, which is that the freedom to criticise fairly and strongly is the cornerstone of debate and progress.

One of the main fears, expressed repeatedly during the evening, was the sheer cost of a libel case. Although the damages at stake might be just £10,000, going to trial can mean risking more than £1m. This means that a blogger has to ask whether he or she can afford the possibility of bankruptcy. Even if a blogger is 90% confident of victory, there is still a 10% chance of failure, which is why bloggers often back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.

I should point out that I am being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. Indeed, last week I was at the Court of Appeal where I received permission to appeal against an earlier ruling on the meaning of my article. The original article was published 18 months ago, the case has cost me £100,000 and there is still a long way to go. My reason for not backing down is that I believe my article is accurate, important and a matter of public interest, as it relates to the use of chiropractic in treating various childhood conditions, such as asthma and ear infections
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