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

from the these-things-matter dept

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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Comments on “SLAPP Threats And The Grenfell Fire: Why We Must Stop Attacks On Free Speech”

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Canuck says:

Re: Re: Another way to shut them up...

“it wouldn’t have cost 10% of that to install sprinklers”

Don’t be silly. You really think a fire suppression sprinkler system costs one tenth of what that cheap cladding cost? Really?

Fire resistant cladding costs ten percent more than the flammable cladding that was actually used. Work on your reading comprehension skills.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

When I got home from work last night, I was greeted by a member of our residents’ association who was asking us to sign a petition that raised safety concerns about the cladding, etc., that had recently been affixed to the building. Basically the petition asks, “Is our block a fire trap?”

It doesn’t help that Tory ministers have cast doubt on the efficacy of sprinklers in that situation, including Boris Johnson. I’ll take the word of the Fire Brigades Union over that of a man who once burned a £50 note under a homeless woman’s nose any day.

Per the current affairs investigation programme Panorama, there are about 4,000 other buildings that have had the cladding put on. I don’t know if it’s the dangerously flammable stuff or not in each case but it’s shocking to think that anyone would use such a thing — apparently the blocks are safer without it as they’re designed to be sealed off from each other in the event of a fire.

I await the outcome of the petition and subsequent meeting with interest.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It’s worse than that. Those lives were lost for the sake of £6,500. That’s how much it would have cost for the non-flammable cladding.

And this was pointed out after <i>repeated</i> Fire Safety Inspections, privately paid for by residents. So ir’s not like those residents didn’t have the truth on their side, either. The fact that the Government is merely investigating this as an inquiry, rather than a crime is a god-forsaken travesty.

Because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, we can afford ££bn for renovating Parliament, but we can’t find £300m to make people more safe in fires? Fuck that noise. Those Councillors should be prosecuted, as should the politicians who let this situation degrade tot he point of futility on the part of the Grenfell residents.

And, as if that wasn’;t <i>bad enough</i>, people are being ‘rehomed’ in places 6-12 hours away, <b>including families</b> and being told that to reject the rehoming makes them ‘voluntarily homeless’, meaning that they will go back on housing waiting lists. Kensington and Chelsea have a <i>3-year waiting list.</i>

It’s a Python sketch, only not nearly as tunny.

David says:

It's not a "tragedy"

A tragedy is when something happens not just in spite but because of best efforts to prevent it.

This is exactly not what happened here. This was a disaster waiting to happen and it did. Using words like "tragedy" suggests an unstoppable course of fate not preventable by human interference.

Exactly because there are more disasters like this waiting to happen, painting this as a "tragedy" instead of continuing criminal negligence bolstered with recklessness and avarice is neither doing the victims justice, nor preventing further deaths for the same reasons.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It's not a "tragedy"

How was it legal to have a single emergency stairwell even in 1972? This is something I’d expect in a 3rd-world country, not London. In other parts of the world, even old buildings have fire escapes retrofitted onto them.

The claim has been often repeated lately that this building was in full compliance with fire regulations, which if true is horrifying in and of itself.



(01:41 AM, June 21, 2017 – please discard older copies)
I propose the following solution, re the creation of more efficient and effective Multiunit Constructions…
During the evolution of the construction of the initial SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT, should a foundational design/ method be found that/ which is more SOTA than the design/ method that composed the initial SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT, then the initial construction is to be immediately halted, the remaining intended design features be shelved, and the building be sold (AS IS… AND, WITHOUT ANY FURTHER PARTICIPATION BY WAY OF THE RESPECTIVE SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT MEMBERS!), and used for another purpose!… and, the new experimental SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION is to be built from scratch in its place– FORTHWITH!– from the monies collected from the sale of the first construction (and, from the “SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT TRUST FUND” used for the Project!), and which will include all of the design specifications that went into the initial draft (minus, the ones to be replaced… and in addition to any new design elements that/ which have been amassed during the sale and start of the newly drafted construction!)! And, this “redesign behavior” shall be repeated AD INFINITUM!… i.e., until such time, as the respective SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT within a given country, is ended! In other words, a SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION is to include newly added SOTA construction design features on a continuous basis!… from the foundation up!… and, will continue to evolve– WITHOUT EXCEPTION, AND WITHOUT INTERRUPTION! And!… and as has been indicated!… if a newer foundational construction method is found, then the building is to be completely redone, as soon as is possible!
Every conceivable SOTA material is to be incorporated!… WITHOUT EXCEPTION! And for example a) new materials for drywall; b) new materials for screws and nails (if such, are even to continue to be included; c) new material for glass (if windows, for example, are to continue to be made of glass!); d) solar panels; e) cement material (or, its abandonment!); f) electrical wiring; g) fibre optic cabling; h) elevator designs (and possibly pneumatic, or superconducting!); i) unit modularity (i.e., the ability to remake a unit’s internal configuration!); j) external windspeed resistance parameters; and etc., and etc.!
Further, ANY ELEMENT that the members of the SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT scientifically determine is less than SOTA, then the element in question is to be immediately replaced… or, due to the impracticality of doing so, THE ENTIRE CONSTRUCTION IS TO BE AGAIN RESOLD AND THE CONSTRUCTION TO BEGIN ANEW!… and even if the design element be a TYPE OF NAIL! In other words, the SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT… as will be the case with all of the other SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS found within all participating countries around the world!… is to include (minute by minute, hour by hour, week by week, month by month, year by year, decade by decade, and– if possible!– generation by generation!) THE MOST ADVANCED FEATURES IN MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION EVER IMPLEMENTED BY THE MIND OF MAN! And, NO ELEMENT!… W-H-A-T-S-O-E-V-E-R!… IS TO BE LEFT UNADDRESSED AND UNACCOUNTED FOR! And no “NON-SOTA ELEMENT” is to be brought back into the SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT, unless the element has been SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN to be, IN FACT, SOTA!… and, in that event, the initial reasons for the removal of the previously discarded element, MUST BE FULLY EXPLAINED, AND THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS FOR ITS REMOVAL COMPARED WITH THE NEW DATA FOR ITS “REINCORPORATION”!
To conclude… these respective SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS, and the collective SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS are “CONTINUOUS WORKS IN PROGRESS”!… and, their respective and collective elements comprise the most thoroughly researched elements ever documented, and form the basis of respective unique “SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECT DATABASES”, and a collective unique “SOTA MULTIUNIT CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS COALITION DATABASE”, that will provide any commercial builder or interested urban designer, with the most advanced set of statistics and data that any commercial builder or other interested stakeholder, could ever hope to want, or have!
Please!… no emails!

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

The Other Choice.

In 1991, my old university, the University of Cincinnati, dynamited a dormitory, Sander Hall. Built in 1971, and 27 stories high, holding 1300 students, Sander Hall had promptly become a demonstration of why it is not a good idea to make a dormitory 27 stories high. Sander Hall had been closed after a 1981 fire, and sad sat around closed for ten years, a white elephant, until the university finally decided to destroy it. They blew it up, in a dramatic admission that they had made a mistake. The University of Cincinnati chose not to have a Grenfell Tower fire.

In Britain, the heirs of Margaret Thatcher made the opposite choice.

In one of the references, you will find a mention of SAGA. SAGA was a commercial subcontractor which ran the dormitory cafeterias at approximately the Glop level, with an emphasis on cheap starches. I never lived in a University of Cincinnati dormitory, and never got locked into a meal plan, but I ate there occasionally, just enough to decide that I did not like the food.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Two sides

First and foremost, the fire is tragic, but not a tragedy. It was foreseeable that something of this nature would happen in relation to older, non-sprinkler tall tower buildings. That may be actionable against the council and the govenrment, at the very least it looks bad.

For the first amendment issue, let’s be clear. Stating or suggesting someone (or some group) is doing something illegal without proof is one of the basics of libelous or slanderous statements. Since the bar on these things in the UK is quite a bit lower than the US, the letter asking for a retraction / removal of the blog in question is not over the top. It’s actually pretty light considering the claims at the time.

Time is key here. A day or a week before the fire, this was all theoretical and hypothetical. The fire brought the situation to a very sad real ending.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Two sides

It was foreseeable that something of this nature would happen in relation to older, non-sprinkler tall tower buildings.

I’ve lived in 2 tall unsprinklered towers (10-20 floors), in Canada, that had fires completely destroy units and in one case kill the resident. The other residents were back inside within a couple hours, except for the immediate neighbours who had to wait a couple more (and had to deal with damp floors and bad smells). The fires never spread to other units even with flames shooting out of the balcony.

So “non-sprinkler” isn’t the only problem, and appears less dangerous than you imply. Of course, these buildings each had 2 or 3 stairwells, and no cladding, and most people leave during fire alarms (even on extremely cold nights—although some people hang out in the lobby).

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Two sides

Canada generally has some of the best building codes in the world. They aren’t messing around when it comes to build quality, and any major renovations are held up to the same high standards.

They are also built with higher insulation standards, safer designs (as you point out, multiple stairwells in buildings under 20 stories), and more points of isolation. Grenfell does not appear to have any isolation points between the units and the elevator / stair complex in the core of the building. To me that looks more like a chimney design!

In the case of this fire, it appears that even hallway sprinklers (just in the common areas) would have been a lifesaver for many. That cladding was a better choice is a head shaker.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Two sides

But still not a tragedy, of course.

Now if it had been a bombing on the scale of Manchester which would have permitted Theresa May to demand backdoors in encryption, then yes, by all means it counts as a tragedy. But a fire that suggests the government might have fucked up? No, no, no, this can’t possibly count as a tragedy!

Kimberley Neal says:

it's not freedom of speech that I'm against

Let me clarify, on my behalf, as I can’t speak for others; I have no problem with freedom of speech. I, in fact, encourage the freedom to express YOUR beliefs under YOUR on name. I am against utilizing someone else’s account/pen name to spread hate propaganda and therefore being a coward. I have reiterated this across the internet. If you have callus remarks/businesses to pimp, go right ahead. Just stay out of anyone else’s account. I can best describe having someone use your account for their own as being raped. This is callus and cowardice behavior that is so pathetic, not only are you hiding behind a screen, but you are hiding behind someone else’s screen name. What a waste of wpm.

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