Page last updated at 16:06 GMT, Sunday, 20 September 2009 17:06 UK

Relax 'unjust' libel law - Dawkins

By Gavin Stamp
Political reporter, BBC News, Lib Dem conference

Richard Dawkins
Professor Dawkins said the law was an obstacle to robust debate

Atheist author and campaigner Richard Dawkins has called for libel laws to be relaxed to stop the stifling of debate about science and medicine.

He told the Lib Dem conference existing libel laws "were illiberal and unjust".

Powerful firms were exploiting the law to inhibit scientists, he said, and he appealed to them to settle disputes in laboratories not the courts.

Lib Dem members backed reform of the laws to give more weight to freedom of speech and the public interest.

Legitimate debate

They passed a motion calling for a "better balance" in the law to safeguard responsible scientific journalism and commentary as opposed to the interests of "powerful corporations, wealthy individuals and vested interests".

Professor Dawkins, the author of a string of best-selling books, is not a Lib Dem party member and had to be given special dispensation to address the party conference in Bournemouth.

But he told members that he was a Lib Dem supporter because of its "strong and consistent" record on free speech issues such as changes to the blasphemy laws.

He said existing laws had turned London into the "libel capital of the world".

"Sensible or liberal, it is not, nor is it just," he said of the current system.

While not denying the right to redress of individuals and companies if maligned, he said the balance between legitimate scientific discourse and the degree to which companies could go to protect their reputations and their businesses had become "skewed".

Existing laws were failing to protect the vulnerable from medical and scientific claims which could either not be proven or were simply fraudulent.

Such disputes should not end up going to law but should be decided in the "higher court of scientific tests", he urged.

Lib Dem justice spokesman David Howarth said the law urgently needed to be modernised.

"The libel law must be rebalanced to ensure it cannot be allowed to close down scientific debate."

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