A 21st Century Free Speech Fight

Several months ago, I was approached by a friend with a request that LabourStart launch an online campaign in support of local care home workers in the area where I live – north London, England.
“We don’t do local,” I said. LabourStart specializes in global campaigns in support of workers’ rights around the globe. A local campaign in support of a couple of hundred workers was out of the question.

There were a number of reasons for my decision, including the assumption that local campaigns were by definition small campaigns. After all, how could we mobilize trade unionists on six continents in support of what was essentially a local dispute in north London?
But my friend did not give up. She pointed out that this campaign touched on broader themes – these were formerly public-sector workers now employed by a private company. They were almost all women. The issues of low pay, privatization, gender equality and others were at play here. And the local union was being quite innovative in its use of the Internet – it was even putting up videos on the web on a regular basis.
In the end, I reluctantly agreed. The campaign in support of care home workers in north London, employees of a registered charity known as Fremantle Trust, went live on 25 August 2007.
As usual in these cases, initially very few people signed up in support of the campaign. Merely putting up links on LabourStart and other websites had almost no impact. It took a mass mailing several days later to get the word out, and by the beginning of September the first few hundred messages began to reach the inbox of the Fremantle Trusts’s chief executive, Carol Sawyers.
Generally, the targets of such online campaigns have reacted in one of two ways. Either they ignore us, or they answer us. A good example of the latter was the chief executive officer of Air New Zealand, who responded to a LabourStart campaign by answering individually every one of the thousands of messages he received – initially with a form letter. But when people would follow up, he’d take the time to answer those letters individually.
Ms Sawyers chose a third route – she neither ignored the campaign nor sought to answer it, but instead decided to close it down. On 31 August, she wrote to me, saying that our campaign was “inaccurate, misleading and potentially libellous. Please remove it and cease forwarding e-mail traffic that contains it.” The “potentially libellous” phrase was not placed there accidentally.
England has some of the worst libel laws in the world. Here, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Libel laws have been used repeatedly against campaigning organizations, most notably in the case of the infamous “McLibel” campaign when McDonald’s waged the longest court battle in English history to shut down a campaign consisting of two activists who’d had the temerity to hand out a leaflet critical of the corporate giant.
Back in the 1980s, an international labour rights journal published in the UK was nearly closed down by similar threats, and attacks were made by the Biwater multinational corporation in the 1990s against the LabourNet website. Libel suits are a powerful way to deal with dissent and Ms Sawyers was well aware of this.
With a bravado born of innocence, we laughed off the threat. When one colleague asked for the original copy of any registered letter we might receive from the Fremantle Trust’s lawyers, I announced that we’d auction off such a letter on eBay. We took for granted that no law suit would actually happen because there was no basis for the allegation that what we had done was in any way libellous.
In a further escalation of the dispute, Fremantle chose that week to sack a Unison shop steward on trumped of charges of misconduct.
What we did not anticipate was that Ms Sawyers had also contacted our Internet Service Provider, and sent them the same text she sent us.
On 6 September, we received an email message from the ISP’s legal department which said, “We have received a recent complaint on behalf of the Fremantle Trust on the basis that you have placed on your website
induce [sic] trade unionists to send e-mails to The Fremantle Trust which is considered to be inaccurate, misleading and potentially libellous. Please remove it and cease forwarding e-mail traffic that contains it … Please could you remove the material by Friday 12pm on the 7th September
2007 or we have no option but to close your website down.”
It was an extraordinary message – based on an allegation made by an employer in an email, saying that we had published something they didn’t like. Without any court case, with no legal basis at all, the ISP had panicked. A phone to them clarified matters – we had 24 hours to either close down the campaign or lose the entire LabourStart website.
We tried to explain to the legal department of the ISP that this was an industrial dispute, that there was no libel – just a disagreement over facts. To no avail. Finally, we got the ISP’s agreement that if we could get an email sent from the union – Unison, Britain’s giant public sector union – clarifying this, they would remove the threat.
Within minutes, Unison had sent off the letter. Eddie Coulson, Unison’s regional organizer, told the ISP, “It is inevitable that Fremantle will try and cease the distribution of information that is detrimental to them as much as they would try and stop the distribution of incorrect information. We are only guilty of exposing them and I trust this reassurance is enough to reassure you that you are not being placed in a vulnerable position.”
We waited for the ISP to confirm that everything was alright, that we did not need to remove the campaign. But we heard nothing. Working right up until the deadline on noon on Friday, we phoned, emailed, did everything to contact 1&1 to confirm that the threat to LabourStart had been lifted. But we heard nothing.
At noon on Friday, we closed down the Fremantle campaign. And two hours later, we launched it on another web server, based in Australia. We created a special domain name – wewillnotbesilenced.org. And we launched a Google ad campaign on the keyword “Fremantle” pointing visitors to the new site. We publicized this attempt to silence us to our mailing lists and word got out.
Within a few days, the campaign had become the largest LabourStart had ever run. Our previous record-holder had been the 2005 campaign in support of striking Gate Gourmet catering workers at London’s Heathrow Airport. That produced some 8,000 protest messages. But the Fremantle campaign reached over 12,000 messages. Carol Sawyers’ attempts to silence us had backfired.
A few days later the workers demonstrated at Fremantle Trust’s headquarters. They held up signs spelling out “We will not be silenced”. In addition to the struggle against low pay, against privatization, and for gender equality, the Fremantle dispute had now turned into a free speech fight.
Three days after Friday noon deadline given to LabourStart, the ISP’s legal department sent an email message which read in part, “Sorry for the late reply i have spoken to UNISON, and request that you restore all the deleted items on the website since he has conifmred [sic] that the exact figures are correct and that from looking at the text closely i do not believe that they are considered to be defamatory.” Note the semi-literate nature of the email – as one friend pointed out, it seems as if the ISP in a cost-cutting move was hiring six year olds for their legal department.
We wrote to the ISP and complained about their shameful behaviour during this entire episode, and spoke about the time and money we had to waste to move the campaign over to a new server. We asked that the ISP take this up at a higher level and get back to us — and raised the possibility of bringing their conduct to the attention of government regulatory bodies in the U.K. such as Ofcom.
A month has passed and we have gotten no reply from the ISP. Meanwhile, the online campaign continues and the Fremantle workers continue their struggle on the ground.
They have called a national demonstration for November 10th. Film director Ken Loach has been by to see them. The profile of their campaign is quite high and tens of thousands of people know about their dispute.
For us, it’s not only been an invigorating experience, but a learning experience as well. I’ve learned that small local campaigns can sometimes capture the imagination of many thousands of people around the world. I’ve also learned that a combination of terrible libel laws and our dependence upon a commercial web server has made LabourStart vulnerable to attacks like this one.
I have no doubt that the Fremantle workers will win improved pay and conditions and their union will emerge much stronger from this dispute. We’ve seen once again proof that online campaigning is an effective tool, one that all unions should use regularly.
The struggle continues.

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