I wasn’t surprised to see recently that Russia has recriminalized libel, raising the penalty for it by orders of magnitude (from $100 to $160,000). Fortunately, though, there is still no penalty of imprisonment for the offense.
What surprised me was Russian President Putin’s statement that the law will be of benefit to scientists. So I started thinking (despite the advice of my doctors): do legitimate scientists ever sue people for libel? If so, is it a good idea for scientists to use libel law to protect reputation?
I could not remember an instance of a legitimate scientist suing someone for libel. A quick search found a big case from a couple of years ago, when a Canadian climate scientist sued a paper and an author for libel. But I still think it’s unusual (is that just my bias speaking?).
Indeed, libel laws are usually used by hucksters masquerading as legitimate scientists in an attempt to silence legitimate scientists (think British Chiropractic Association and Andrew Wakefield).
In order for science to work and human knowledge to advance, scientists need to be free to criticize each other without fear of lawsuits from other scientists. That’s why groups like Sense About Science are working to keep libel laws out of science.
What really puzzled me about Putin’s statements, though, was his assurance that ““It is by a definition that a person involved in politics is unlikely to go to a court to accuse someone of libel.” Of course! And to think that critics of the new law have said that the law is intended to silence opposition to the government. Really, when was the last time Russian politicians used the force of law to silence an opponent? (And Tuesday doesn’t count.)