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Simon Lehna Singh’s story is now the most famous example of legal bullying of a science writer for commenting on controversial health care. It has had important consequences for free speech in the form an important and successful campaign to reform British libel law. It also has great significance to me, because I was being legally bullied for similar reasons at the same time. (This is a story I will tell in detail in a book due to be released, I hope, in early 2015.)
Simon Singh criticized the British Chiropractic Association for endorsing spinal adjustment for children with conditions like asthma and ear infections. He famously called it “bogus” and pointing out the lack of evidence. The BCA sued, exploiting Britain’s nasty libel laws, which bizarrely require defendants to prove themselves innocent at fantastic expense. The case got off to a rough start for free speech with a ruling that Singh could not rely on his only realistic hope, the “fair comment” defence. Nevertheless, Simon appealed and the case became a public relations disaster for the BCA. On April 1, 2010, Simon Singh won his appeal, and the BCA withdrew its lawsuit.In 2012, the Guardian published an interesting follow-up, Why we sued Simon Singh: the British Chiropractic Association speaks, in which the BCA describes the lawsuit as “one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially, reputationally and politically.”
The case catalysed a major on-going campaign to reform British libel law and put an end to the phenomenon of “libel tourism” — corporations suing their critics around the world in Britain, exploiting crazy laws that favour them there. A science writer should be able to comment on genuine concerns on an important public health issue (such as correct treatment for children) without the threat and expense of British High Court libel claims. The cost of an opinion about a controversial health care issue should not be ruinous. In the words of Frank Frizelle (writing about this very issue):
Let’s hear your evidence, not your legal muscle.
Curiously, Singh’s story — like my own, I suppose — has not yet been told in detail in one place, although it is summarized well by Wikipedia. Singh is the author of several well-known book, such as Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets.
There is one other major chiropractic legal case: Wilks vs. the AMA, fought from 1976 to 1987.
Previously, AMA rules made it officially unethical for medical doctors to associate or refer patients to chiropractors. A federal antitrust suit was brought against the American Medical Association (AMA) and 10 other institutional co-defendants by chiropractor Chester A. Wilk, DC, and four co-plaintiffs. After many years of appeals, the case ultimately concluded with a ruling against the AMA, specifically finding them guilty of prevent physicians from referring patients to chiropractors (violating Section 1, but not Section 2, of the Sherman Antitrust Act). The judge expressed faith in the AMA’s goodwill and “subjective belief that chiropractic was not in the best interests of patients,” but still judged that their “concern for scientific method in patient care could have been adequately satisfied in a manner less restrictive of competition.”
The AMA nows permits medical doctors to refer patients to chiropractors. “Chiropractors crowed about their victory,” writes Dr. Harriet Hall, “but it actually did little to change ‘discriminatory’ practices or to enhance the reputation of chiropractic.”
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.