Over the past year, the Libel Reform Campaign and Sense about Science have campaigned vigorously to “keep libel laws out of science“. They have drawn attention to the “chilling effect” of libel actions on scientists like Peter Wilmshurst and science writers like Simon Singh. An interesting perspective on these issues is provided by a French criminal libel judgment given by the 17th Chamber of the “Tribunal correctionnel de Paris” on 18 January 2011 in a criminal libel case brought on the complaint of one scientist against another over statements concerning research on genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”).
The complaint was brought by Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini a researcher in molecular biology at the University of Caen and Chairman of the Scientific Council CRIIGEN, against Professor Marc Fellous the chair of the French Association of Plant Biotechnology (AFBV). The AFBV had written to the television station France 5 and the Higher Audiovisual Council to protest about a programme called “Health Magazine” aired on France 5 in January 2010, and which was devoted to GMOs. The programme had a long discussion of a controversial study that was conducted on the impact of three varieties of transgenic maize on the health of mammals by Professor Séralini. In the letter the AFBV said that Professor Séralini was
“primarily an anti-GMO militant, who claims to be independent whereas his studies are financed by Greenpeace”
It was also suggested that Professor Séralini was a “poor scholar” and a “merchant of fear“. The letter was then published on the AFBV website.
A number of academics, professors and researchers signed up to a protest against the defamation of Professor Séralini, and to defend openness and transparency in the risk assessment of GMOs. The protest was organised by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. The GM Watch website has a piece setting out its views of the background to the case.
The judges of the 17th Chamber (which specialises in press matters) found that the letter carried the imputation that Professor Séralini had “failed in his obligation of intellectual integrity because of his dependence on Greenpeace, from which he received financial assistance for his work” and that this was defamatory. However, they held that the other matters complained of were part of “the scientific debate.” Professor Fellous was ordered to pay a suspended €1,000 fine, (what appears to be a symbolic) €1 damages and €4,000 costs. We have not seen a copy of the judgment.
“Le Figaro” has suggested that it was the first time that the French justice system had had to decide on a dispute between scientists. The result of the court case was welcomed by campaigners, with GM Watch describing it as a victory for independent science – although a number of commentators have expressed concerns about the verdict (see, for example, the Imposteurs blog posts here and here). There is a report of the case in English on the Corporate Observatory website. A round up of the French news stories on the case can be found on Wikio.fr.
On the assumption that this case has provided a proper vindication for a scientist who was being wrongly and damagingly criticised for his research it suggests that there are occasions when the courts can, properly, get involved in scientific controversy in the defence of “whistleblowers” and independent researchers.
One final point arises from this case. In France (as in many other European countries) this was a criminal matter. The total costs involved were much lower than those which would have been incurred even in a French civil court. The involvement of the criminal law in defamation is generally regarded as inappropriate. However, if the issue had arisen in England then the only way for Professor Séralini to obtain redress would have been through hugely expensive civil proceedings. Whatever libel reforms are implemented, such a claim would be beyond the resources of most private individuals (particularly if libel CFAs are no longer available). It is interesting to try and think of reforms to the English legal system which would allow cases of this kind to be dealt with, in the public interest, at moderate expense.