Bristol ACORN in England and Wales was forged in Bristol more than a half-dozen years ago. It was here where we had our first office, our first and founding organizers, and our first organizing drive in the Easton neighborhood. From that first meeting when members raised their hands to select the first campaign, and it was decided that dealing with the issues tenants were having with letting agencies, the organization has grown from that point forward to over 6000 dues-paying members now in branches across the country. The first three organizers have grown tenfold. The organization is known for its victories as a community union. The affordable housing crisis has fueled ACORN’s popularity with tenants so that many think of the organization first as a tenants’ union. It’s been a wild ride, even during the first year of the pandemic when the organization grew by 250%!
Invariably, in the chemistry of organization all of our actions have provoked a reaction, especially in the wake of rent freezes and eviction moratoriums. We found ourselves talking not so much about expansion, the next campaigns, and other issues as we did about ways to protect the organization against attack, especially the new landlords’ weapon of choice, the country’s libel law.
We’ve all probably read a story from time to time about movie stars and royalty suing Fleet Street and its reporters over libel. Most of us have paid little attention, seeing these back-and-forth disputes as a pox on both their houses, sound and fury signifying nothing. Weaponized against an organization and its members fighting for their rights, it’s another problem entirely. The quaint American notions of free speech finds little recourse in thinking about English libel law
ACORN’s Sheffield branch in a dispute over a landlord’s predatory lease and tactics labeled it false, calling it a “fraud,” and documented it with video. In taking action, the phone number of the recalcitrant landlord, heavily advertised publicly, triggered protests asking members to call the number and demand justice for the aggrieved tenant. In this case, the landlord sued us for libel.
Having told the truth, we first thought it was open and shut. Now we’re buying the lessons. Finding attorneys willing on a pro bono basis to deal with libel found little response. When we finally lawyered up it was a king’s ransom even with allegedly a reduced rate. Worse, the attorneys said there was little chance of winning, and even if we wanted to win, it would cost us more to defend ourselves in court that it would to try immediately to settle. Left with little choices between the devil and the deep blue sea, we started swimming and spitting against the tide, while saving money and cutting costs to pay the bills that were coming.
There wasn’t much to say in our national headquarters in Bristol about the Sheffield case, but we spent hours discussing how to structure the organization to withstand future assaults by lone wolf landlords or whole packs of them that might cripple the organization. I’ve frequently argued that the mark of a good organizer is the ability to withstand conflict. We’re passing the test again in Bristol, but none of us find any pleasure in the exercise or the time and money that will have to be spent preparing the organization, its leadership, and structure for future battles.