How to Know the Truth: Accommodating Religious Belief in the Law of Libel

16 Pages Posted: 25 Oct 2012

See all articles by Alastair Mullis

Alastair Mullis

University of Leeds - School of Law

Andrew Scott

London School of Economics - Law School

Date Written: August 31, 2012


While religious pluralism, liberty and equality are now general cultural and legal expectations in the UK, the history of interplay between religious identities is one of intellectually - and sometimes physically - violent discord. Today, religious frictions persist as an inevitable facet of a plural society. Both low-level antipathies and serious religious disputes are driven by such factors as long-standing and incipient factionalism within religious groupings, more or less aggressive secularist critique, and resentment among some faiths of the proselytizing zeal of others. From time to time, the law of libel is invoked to resolve disputes engendered by religious difference, notwithstanding that it is inherently difficult for any purportedly neutral, secular law properly to adjudicate between competing conceptions of the righteous and the good. This paper proceeds in four parts. First, we outline the basic features of English libel law to underpin the subsequent discussion. Secondly, we suggest a typology of criticism of religious faiths and their adherents, and indicate how each type of allegation would be countenanced by the law. Thirdly, we criticize the approach adopted by the English courts to one type of allegation: those that involve specific allegations of fact but which rest on questions of religious doctrine. We find that by abjuring any role on grounds of non-justiciability and deference to religious modes of dispute resolution, the courts may systematize the disadvantage of already marginalized groups. Finally, we suggest a conceptually and jurisprudentially preferable manner for the resolution of such cases that would properly ensure the neutrality of libel law as between disparate views on questions of religious faith.

Keywords: libel, defamation, religion, Sikhism, truth, fair comment, justiciability

Suggested Citation

Mullis, Alastair and Scott, Andrew, How to Know the Truth: Accommodating Religious Belief in the Law of Libel (August 31, 2012). LSE Legal Studies Working Paper No. 9/2012, Available at SSRN: or

Alastair Mullis

University of Leeds - School of Law ( email )

Leeds LS2 9JT
United Kingdom

Andrew Scott (Contact Author)

London School of Economics - Law School ( email )

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