Huge news out of the UK today: the Queen has announced that Parliament will finally reform the horrific libel and defamation laws that have caused untold amounts of damage to free speech throughout the state. You may recall that a few years back, Simon Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association, who, like many who sue for libel in the UK, probably expected an easy win due to the high expense and overwhelming burden of proof against those who must defend themselves even against spurious accusations. Simon fought back and helped spur a movement that called upon the UK government for libel law reform. Today, that movement finally found a huge success.
For those who don’t have a Queen, let me briefly explain what happened – today was the opening day of Parliament, which in prior years happened in early winter but from now on will happen in May. The Queen is expected to open Parliament by delivering a speech outlining what the agenda will be for the coming year, plus a bit of chit chat about her travel plans.
It may sound like that gives the Queen an awful lot of power, but she’s pretty much the equivalent of your local news anchor reading off the teleprompter. The actual speech isn’t written by the Queen; it’s written by a cabinet of government officials, and the Queen has to read it in an even tone without adding any snarky asides. My favorite part of the Wiki article about the Queen’s speech is this:
It is traditionally written on goatskin vellum, and presented for Her Majesty to read by the Lord Chancellor, who then, rather than turning his back on Her Majesty, walks backwards down the steps of the throne without stumbling.
You never turn your back on the queen, because she will stab you. I’m going to institute a similar rule at the Skepchick HQ.
Anyway, today, the Queen’s speech made clear that libel reform is officially on the agenda for Parliament this year. That’s huge, especially considering that the past several years have seen the Libel Reform Campaign taking two steps forward and two steps back. For instance, they were able to get a good amount of interest in a libel reform petition and Early Day Motion, but then supporter MP Dr. Evan Harris lost his reelection campaign while his cowardly opponents labeled him “Doctor Death” for his pro-choice, pro-voluntary euthanasia, pro-animal research stance.
In the meanwhile, rich and powerful people the world over were gleefully using the UK court system as a silencing weapon, much how disgraced anti-vaccine money-grubbing pseudoscientist fear-mongerer Andrew Wakefield tried to do to Brian Deer.
Today’s announcement is a huge win for Simon Singh, Sense About Science, Index on Censorship, English Pen, and all of the other dedicated people and organizations who have been fighting for years to protect freedom of speech in the UK. Congratulations to everyone!