Yes, calling someone a groomer or paedophile online can get you sued, lawyers warn

An effigy of Elon Musk is seen with a Twitter logo on a mobile device in this photo illustration.

People who call others ‘groomer’, ‘paedophile’ or other anti-LGBTQ+ slurs online could be in “serious danger of being sued”, a lawyer has told PinkNews.

Lee Fisher, a partner specialising in defamation at Blake Morgan LLP, spoke about the dangers of defamation and breaching privacy on Twitter.

A defamatory statement is one that harms the reputation of a person, company or organisation.

Defamation comprises the legal wrongs of libel and slander. Libel relates to a defamatory statement in writing or other permanent form, such as in a broadcast. Slander is oral.

Fisher’s advice follows a top defamation lawyer warning that social media users who speculated about recent media coverage of a BBC presenter online could be sued and face financial ruin.

It also follows anti-trans activist and former TV comedy writer Graham Linehan’s recent attack on Good Omens actor David Tennant, who he called “groomer” for wearing a pro-trans t-shirt. 

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“Comments such as groomer and pedophile, which aren’t based on any objectively true facts, are certainly something that people can sue upon,” Fisher told PinkNews.

“The basic law is that if something is defamatory – whether it’s down the local pub, on Twitter, or in any other sort of written or spoken form – meaning it’s capable of lowering that individual in the eyes of others, you could be sued.” 

Online anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric contributes to real-life violence

According to the defamation expert, there is a “greater likelihood” that defamatory comments on Twitter could be seized upon due to the platform’s retweeting and trending hashtag feature, which allows comments to be seen by more people. 

In 2022, a report by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Center for Countering Digital Hate found that the use of the “groomer” slur on social media skyrocketed in the wake of Florida’s cruel “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

In March 2023, further research found that posts mentioning the anti-LGBTQ+ “groomer” narrative had soared by 119 per cent under Elon Musk’s management of Twitter.

Following the findings Jay Brown, the senior vice president of programs, research and training at the HRC, warned that social media hate is contributing to real-life violence.

“We are experiencing a surge of anti-LGBTQ+ attacks as extremists continue to traffic in dangerous disinformation about our community,” Brown said.

“Digital platforms, like Twitter, are failing to protect our community from dangerous rhetoric that no longer hides behind the anonymity of a computer screen but has manifested into threats of violence in real life.”

‘Make sure that what you say is based upon facts’

Fisher advises social media users to ensure that what they are posting is factual.

“You always have to make sure that what you say is based upon facts, which you can prove,” he said.

“If you stray beyond that, you are in serious danger of being sued, especially if you talk about a high-profile individual.”

In 2022, Laurence Fox requested a jury trial in a defamation case brought by Drag Race UK’s Crystal, former Stonewall trustee Simon Blake and Coronation Street star Nicola Thorp, after he falsely labelled them “paedophiles” during a heated Twitter row in October 2020. 

In cases of defamation, the defence of truth is the best defence. Under the Defamation Act 2013, the defence of truth is a complete defence and relies upon the defendant show that what they have alleged is substantially true. 

Fisher recommends contacting Twitter if you believe a defamatory post about you has been published, so the platform can take it down. If the statement has caused damage to a person’s reputation, he advises speaking to lawyers. 

Shubha Nath, managing director of Nath Solicitors Ltd, told PinkNews that in her experience, those who believe they have been defamed online usually just want the comments to stop.

“The fastest way to do this is to engage a defamation specialist who can write a “cease and desist” letter to the person who posted,” Nath said.

“The letters usually set out the background, explain why the statement is false and what its real meaning is and demand the person stops because if they do not the claimants rights are reserved to commence proceedings.

“If you are not sure and are not prepared to take the risk of receiving a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer, the best advice is don’t post.”

The use of the term groomer, linked to LGBTQ+ people, continues to grow on social – and was even linked to Florida’s cruel Don’t Say Gay law in 2022.

Facebook and its parent company Meta has been criticised for making thousands of dollars from adverts featuring the word groomer, and it has even been used by some American politicians to attack others online.

The owner of Club Q, the Colorado queer bar where five people were shot dead in 2022, blamed use of the word for the rise in real-life violence against LGBTQ+ people.

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