181 writers call for defamation reform to be prioritised

Read our letter signed by 181 Scottish and International writers calling on the First Minister to include defamation reform in the 2019 Programme for Government

August 12, 2019

181 writers and campaigners including Ian Rankin, Sara Sheridan, Christopher Brookmyre, Karen Campbell, Christine de Luca, Zoe Wicomb, James Robertson and Zoe Strachan have signed a letter authored by Scottish PEN calling on the Scottish Government to introduce a Defamation (Reform) Bill in the forthcoming year of the parliamentary session. Earlier this year, the Government led a public consultation on reform, but it is not clear whether reform will be included in the 2019 Programme for Government, leaving us with a law that is both inadequate and outdated. Every moment reform is delayed, writers, academics, scientists, journalists and ordinary citizens exchanging their views online remain at risk from being threatened by legal action on the most minor of issues.

With your help, Scottish PEN has been leading reform for the last three years and following the public consultation we are closer than we have been in the 23 years since the last meaningful reform. This is an opportunity to better protect free expression for everyone in Scotland, with key reforms including a serious harm threshold to dissuade trivial cases or those brought solely to silence criticism; a statutory public interest defence; increased protections for defenders against vexatious legal action; better online protections and a single publication rule to ensure the time period within which a defamation action can be brought does not restart every time a link or post is shared or viewed online.

But to ensure reform is not delayed defamation reform needs to be included in the 2019 Programme for Government, empowering the Scottish Government to introduce a Defamation (Reform) Bill in the forthcoming year of the parliamentary session.

Every moment reform is delayed, writers, academics, scientists, journalists and ordinary citizens exchanging their views online remain at risk from being threatened by legal action on the most minor of issues.

181 writers and representatives from across Scotland, Scottish PEN members and representing PEN centres from around the world joined us to call on Nicola Sturgeon to prioritise reform. The full letter and signatories can be read here:


A PDF of the following letter can be viewed here

Dear First Minister,

Please commit to reforming defamation law in the upcoming Programme for Government to ensure free expression is protected in Scotland.

The Scots Law of defamation is out of date, inadequately protecting free expression, and is in urgent need of reform. The protections the law currently extends are woefully insufficient when faced with the ways people across Scotland communicate, source information and reach out to others, especially online. To ensure free expression is protected, defamation must be reformed as soon as possible. Recent movements towards reform, including the Scottish Government public consultation, which followed an earlier evidence session at the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, are to be welcomed. In the face of the clear consensus around the need for reform, the Scottish people need guarantees that this work will be followed by meaningful legislative action.

Reform is long overdue, but we now have growing consensus as to what needs to change. This includes a serious harm threshold to dissuade trivial cases or those brought solely to silence criticism; a statutory defence of publication on matters of public interest; increased protections for defenders against vexatious legal action; better online protections and a single publication rule to ensure the time period within which a defamation action can be brought does not restart every time a link or post is shared or viewed online.

In the face of the clear consensus around the need for reform, the Scottish people need guarantees that this work will be followed by meaningful legislative action.

A quote from the Letter to First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon

Every one of these reforms will strengthen free expression and ensure that public debate is not controlled or stifled by powerful vested interests. Last year, we sent a letter signed by over 150 writers and campaigners, ahead of the Programme for Government for 2018/19, where we welcomed the public consultation. However, we maintain that analysis of the January 2019 consultation should not delay a commitment from the Scottish Government to introduce a Defamation (Reform) Bill in the forthcoming year of the parliamentary session. To this end, we call on you to commit to bringing forward legislation to reform defamation in your Programme for Government for 2019/20.

Protecting free expression cannot wait any longer. Every moment reform is delayed, writers, academics, scientists, journalists and ordinary citizens exchanging their views online remain at risk from being threatened by legal action on the most minor of issues.

By committing to include legislation reforming defamation law in the 2019 Programme for Government, you will send a powerful signal to people across Scotland that free expression is both valued and protected and that Scotland prioritises laws that accurately represent the country as it is, not the country it used to be.

Yours sincerely,

Johan Adamson

Jim Aitken

Liz Albert

Candace Albornoz

Colin Alexander

Jason Allardyce

Frank Mackay Anim-Appiah

Jane Archer (Scottish PEN Trustee & Writers at Risk Committee Co-Chair)

Callum Baird

Megan Bauld

Germaine Beaulieu

Salah Beddiari

Rui Beja

Gaston Bellemare

Michèle Bernard

Rosaleen Bertolino

Dr Justin Borg-Barthet

David Bourn

Aileen Brady

Billy Briggs

Chris Brookmyre

Carole Browner

David Buchanan

Bruce Buswell

Ron Butlin

Regula Butlin

Jenni Calder (Scottish PEN Membership Secretary)

James Campbell

Karen Campbell

Drew Campbell (Scottish PEN Trustee)

Gerard Carruthers (Scottish PEN Trustee)

Samina Chaudhry

Sandra Cisneros

Anne Clarke

Ken Cockburn

Carlos Collado Seidel

Luigi Colucci

Anne Connolly

Martin Connor

John Coutts

Joan Craig

Moira Dale

Claudia Daventry

Christine de Luca

Meaghan Delahunt

Alan Dickson

Ana Diogo

Emma Doherty (Scottish PEN Trustee)

Janet Dube

Chik Duncan

Lynn Dunlop

Lloyd Duong

Rob Edwards

Dorothy-Grace Elder

Lizzie Eldridge

Margaret Elphinstone

Islam Elsanov (Chechen PEN)

John Faithfull

Vicki Feaver

Una Flett

Roddy Forsyth

Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin (Irish PEN)

Bashabi Fraser (Scottish PEN Trustee)

Iain Galbraith

Magi Gibson

Alastair Gilchrist

Fiona Graham (Scottish PEN Vice-President)

Kylie Grant

Jennifer Gray

Steven Gray

Stephanie Green

Michael Halmshaw (PEN International)

Dennis Haskell AM (Perth PEN Centre)

Colin Henderson

Joy Hendry

Diana Hendry

Jenny Henry

Lillian Higgins

Judyth Hill

Martin Hillman

Jill Hollis

Tom Hubbard

David Jarvie

Jamie Jauncey

Charley-Kai John

Brian Johnstone

Stephen Jones

Danson Kahyana (PEN Uganda)

Karin Deutsch Karlekar (PEN America)

Lucina Kathmann (PEN International Vice-President Emerita)

Michael John Keenan

Martin Laing

Lindsay Latona

Joan Lennon

Moira Lindsay

Pippa Little

Gerry Loose

Cat Lucas (English PEN)

Eileen MacAlister

Carl MacDougall (Scottish PEN President)

Dugald MacGilp

Ciara MacLaverty

Rhona MacLeod

Iain Maloney

David Manderson (Scottish PEN Secretary & Writers for Peace Committee Chair)

Maria Marques

Lesley Marshall

Michael Marten

Felicity Martin

Donald Martin

John Matthews

Cailean McBride

Mary McCabe

Pauline McCorquodale

Scott McCulloch

Euan McGrory

Rosalind McInnes

Alastair McIntosh

James McIvor

John McLellan

Sean McMenemy

Greg Michaelson

Pauline Michel

Ricky Monahan Brown (Scottish PEN Trustee)

Fiona Montgomery

Graham Morgan

Alastair Muir

Gordon Muir

Derek Munro

Colin Murray

Anne Murray

David Myers

Hege Newth (Norsk PEN)

Kriss Nichol

Liz Niven (Scottish PEN Writers in Exile Committee Chair)

Jane Overton

Brendan Paddy

Nycolas Parker

Maria Pereira

Robert Philip

John Pilkington

Maria Pires

Tom Pow

Aurea Quesada

Jean Rafferty

Ian Rankin

Dorothy Rankin

Diane Régimbald

Sue Reid Sexton

Dr Mario Relich (Scottish PEN Trustee)

Lesley Riddoch

Richard Roberts

James Robertson

Stewart Sandison

Andrew Murray Scott

Kenneth Shearer

Sara Sheridan

Dennis Smith

Leela Soma

Leslie Stevenson

Zoe Strachan

Richard Strathie

Joan Strouse

Gabriel Súnico

Aniko Szilagyi

Ian Taylor

Andrew Tickell (Scottish PEN Trustee)

Alexander Tiffin

Brian Underwood

Vonne van der Meer

Félix Villeneuve (PEN Quebec)

Erik Vlaminck

Zoe Wicomb

Andy Wightman MSP

Nik Williams

Susan Windram

Robert Wishart

June Wishart

Thomas Woods

Yorn Young

Maria Zuffova

Total number of signatories is 181