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The Ontario Superior Court building in Toronto on Jan. 29, 2020.Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

An Ontario Superior Court justice has rejected an attempt by a Facebook user to throw out a defamation suit against him, ruling he did not speak in the public’s interest when he posted to his page that drag performers in a Northern Ontario city were “groomers” who exploit and abuse children.

Brian Webster had brought the pretrial motion using the province’s anti-SLAPP law, meant to stop those with power from using legal challenges to silence or smear their critics. (SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuits against public participation.) He is being sued by a drag performer and an LGBTQ organization from Dryden, which is nearly a four-hour drive northwest of Thunder Bay. Both of those parties are seeking damages of at least $95,000 after Mr. Webster, in a post to his Real Thunder Bay Courthouse-Inside Edition Facebook page last year, criticized a CBC article that named them.

Mr. Webster, who didn’t deny he wrote the paragraphs, questioned – in all capital letters – the motives of “these people” to perform for children, calling them “groomers” with an “agenda,” according to the Dec. 14 judgment.

Justice Tracey Nieckarz ruled there was no merit to Mr. Webster’s claim he was merely commenting on the national broadcaster and its journalism and “given that numerous politicians and citizens are calling for the CBC to be defunded by taxpayers, this was all public interest speech.”

The word “groomer” is increasingly being used as a slur by anti-LGBTQ protesters across Canada. Justice Nieckarz accepted the evidence of two experts that it refers to someone “who manipulatively develops a relationship or connection with a child to exploit and abuse them.”

“It is a slur that is used to allege that drag performers sexualize children and aim to recruit them into the 2SLGBTQI community,” she wrote, adding that perpetuating such harmful tropes is not in the public interest.

Her decision noted that Mr. Webster (whose Facebook group now has 19,000 followers) reacted positively to the incendiary responses garnered by his September, 2022, post. These included one user asking, “Can we buy tags to hunt these animals??” and stating that public drag events are a good opportunity for drag artists to be “exposed” so that society could “take care of them.”

Mr. Webster, who represented himself during the latest motion, did not respond to The Globe and Mail’s request (sent to his Facebook page last week by direct message) to comment on the ruling.

Caitlin Hartlen, one of the performers in a photo posted by Mr. Webster and named in the CBC article he shared, is suing for defamation, alleging the online slur was particularly harmful because they work for a child protection agency.

Rainbow Alliance Dryden, the other participant in the defamation suit, is a non-profit that organizes drag events in the northwestern Ontario town. The group is alleging that Mr. Webster’s post targeting a report on its trio of weekend performances – an adult drag show, an all-ages drag brunch and an all-ages drag story time at a public library – inferred it is organizing events for sexual predators.

“The plaintiffs also allege that in the days following the publication of the Courthouse Page post, a number of posters appeared around the Dryden area suggesting that RAD’s drag events were not appropriate for children. Some of these posters contained statements referring to pedophilia,” Justice Nieckarz’s ruling states. “Additionally, the plaintiffs fear the yet unknown harm to reputation, or risk for reprisals or discrimination.

Douglas Judson, one of the five lawyers for the plaintiffs, said this decision is a sharp rebuke of the “wild rhetoric targeting members” of the LGBTQ community.

“They’re pretty proud that they asserted themselves and generated some law that will be to the benefit of not just them, but the wider drag and pride community that they’re part of,” he said of his clients.

He continued: “What we hope that this type of case will accomplish – when it does finally come to a close – is making an example of, ‘You can’t do this. This is not responsible advocacy on an issue that maybe you do care about, for whatever reason.’”

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