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SLAPP Threats And The Grenfell Fire: Why We Must Stop Attacks On Free Speech

You've probably heard about the horrific tragedy in the UK of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed many people. There are all sorts of awful stories related to the tragedy, but there is one that hits close to home: the use of SLAPP threats to silence residents who warned about fire dangers in the building. You see, a group of residents in the building who were concerned about safety issues, calling themselves the Grenfell Action Group have been blogging about problems in the building for years -- including this horrifyingly prescient blog post from last November, which included the following paragraphs:

It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice! The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.

We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting

Yikes. There are many more similar blog posts as well. And apparently, the building management -- the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) -- decided years ago that the best way to deal with the blogging tenants... was to threaten them with a lawsuit if they kept blogging. In a letter posted to Twitter by a bunch of people (not sure who posted it first), back in 2013, the KCTMO threatened the bloggers with defamation lawsuits if they kept it up:

The image is a little blurry, but here's a transcript of the key part:

I would also ask that you remove from the blog unfounded accusations against named individuals which are your personal opinion and are likley to be considered defamatory and also likely to be perceived as harassment by the individuals concerned. I should be grateful if you could contact Vinal Sarna immediately to confirm that you have removed the offending blog and that you will refrain from making unsubstantiated accusation of criminal behaviour and personal comments about an individual's performance or actions while working on or for the Estate Management Board.

And, of course, UK libel laws are much stricter than in the US, so it's quite reasonable that these kinds of letters would have significant chilling effects on the authors of the blog, who might fear that calling more attention to problems with building management and threats to safety might, in fact, be met with a lawsuit. At least one publication is noting that at least two women who died in the fire were among those threatened with legal action for calling for better fire protection in the building, though the exact details of those threats are not entirely clear.

Either way, this hearkens back to the early days of anti-SLAPP laws in the US, where many were designed to deal with building developers threatening activists or suing them to silence them entirely. Having strong free speech protections in the UK might have helped to make tenants in the building more willing to speak out and have their voices heard, rather than threatened into silence for upsetting the management of the building to the point of having a lawyer send out threat letters.

The fight to protect free speech is about more than just people wanting to say stuff that might upset people -- it's about not being afraid to speak out when it's necessary.

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