I was in Court 4 at the Royal Courts of Justice at 9.30 this morning, the Court of the Lord Chief Justice. This one was a ‘real’ court room, all oak panel, wall-to-wall shelves of legal tomes and even a dock caged with cast-iron bars for the defendant (empty on this occasion).
It was a brief affair. The buzz of conversation stopped abruptly with the words “Court Rise” and in came the Lord Chief Justice himself. His first concern seemed to be if there would be enough copies of the judgement to hand out to those present. “Are all the ladies and gentlemen over there interested?” he inquired, looking in our direction. We nodded.
And then–at first I thought I had missed it–he announced “This appeal is allowed” and copies of the judgement were handed out. There were smiles, mixed with looks of bafflement (“Does that mean..?” “Yes?”). The smiles on Simon’s solicitor’s face confirmed the truth of the matter. Justice Eady’s judgement–that Simon Singh’s article could be taken to be an assertion that the BCA had acted dishonestly–is overturned. His Comment is Free article in the Guardian can now be defended (in the still ongoing libel trial) as fair comment.
I managed to snag a copy of the judgement and have been trying to digest it on my way back to the office. I am not qualified to articulate its meaning in any great depth but will highlight a couple of the more scientific aspects that struck me.
The justices first note the impact of the case brought by the BCA against the science writer:
“It is now two years since the publication of the offending article. It seems unlikely that anyone would have dared to repeat the opinions expressed by Dr Singh for fear of a writ. Accordingly, this litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate about the possible use of chiropractic.”
Quite. (Though given the eruption of material on chiropractic in the blogosphere and elsewhere since this case started, I’m not sure their lordships are quite on the money there).
They move on to consider the consequences of this case. In their submissions both sides have argued about the evidence for the claims of chiropractors. The justices are concerned where this will lead.
“Ms Rogers (counsel for the BCA) has told us that… the trial can be expected to involve expert evidence on both sides and a judicial conclusion as to whether there is any evidence for the BCA’s claims.
One has only to contemplate this prospect to conclude that something is amiss.”
They then get to what I think is the nub of the matter and take the view (if I have understood correctly) that scientific evidence is a matter for debate between scientists rather than in court, mainly because it is not easy to define what are the ‘facts’ in many complex scientific issues. Singh’s comments about the BCA claims are held to be expressions of opinion.
“The opinion may be mistaken, but to allow the party which has been denounced on the basis of it to compel the author to prove in court what he has asserted by way of argument is to invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth. Milton, recalling in the Areopagitica his visit to Italy in 1638-9, wrote:
‘I have sat among their learned me, for that honour I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom, as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning among them was brought;… that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.’
This is a pass to which we ought not to come again”
Wonderful stuff. They do give good value for money these justices!
And finally, in what is perhaps a marker of the way their Lordships would like to see such cases treated in future, they quote a ruling by Judge Easterbrook from the USA:
“[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.”
A good day for Simon Singh, for freedom of speech and for science.
But Simon’s case is not over yet. According to their statement, posted by The LayScientist, the BCA are disappointed and considering their position.
And the campaign for libel reform must continue. Tell your friends. Sign the petition.
Follow developments on Twitter via the #singhbca hashtag. The full ruling (definitely worth a read) should be available on Jack of Kent’s Blog later today.
Update: Judgement now available as a pdf thanks to Index on Censorship.