VANCOUVER — A vigilante group that claims to expose alleged pedophiles is facing two defamation lawsuits in British Columbia including one from a man who criticized the group's practices in an online commentary that he says led to him wrongly being called a pedophile.
Sean Smith of Campbell River filed a notice of claim in B.C. Supreme Court on March 16 against the president of the Surrey Creep Catchers, Ryan LaForge, alleging he identified Smith as a pedophile in a series of public posts on Facebook.
Smith says as a result, he received response posts threatening him with death or bodily harm.
The social media consultant and educator said he created a video sharing his critical perspective on creep catcher groups because their practices are at odds with what he teaches people about online etiquette.
"The social media shaming, the accusations that are unfounded, the incitement of a social media mob to attack a person, the fact that what you post online today will never go away because the Internet never forgets — it was everything that was not right about social media," he said in an interview.
Smith is seeking damages to be determined by the court. None of the allegations made in the lawsuit have been proven in court.
The Surrey Creep Catchers is part of a loose collection of groups across Canada that claim to expose people they suspect to be child sexual predators by posing as minors online, then arrange to meet their targets so they can confront them and broadcast the footage online.
LaForge has not filed a statement of defence, but in an interview he said he is exercising his right to free speech.
"I'm allowed to have my opinion," he said. "He claims he doesn't agree with pedophilia and their acts but yet everything he does, every minute of every day he spends is to put us down and defame myself and my crew."
LaForge said he has also been the victim of negative online comments as a result of the dispute, with people "just calling me nothing, calling me useless, just derogatory names."
Smith's lawyer, John Nelson, said there is a lack of civility online, but comments made in cyberspace can have far-reaching consequences.
"I think we're starting to see more and more people seek redress for what is said ... because, simply put, cyberspace can't police itself," he said.
The notice of claim says Smith began getting negative reaction on Dec. 7 after he posted a video on Facebook criticizing the activities of creep catcher organizations without naming any individual group or person.
The court document alleges that LaForge then published a series of posts on pages he normally uses to expose targets of creep catcher sting operations, identifying Smith as a pedophile.
Photos of Smith from his Facebook page were also allegedly shared by LaForge, accompanied with comments, including one that said: "What's a pedo even look like? Oh yeah, this guy."
The statement of claim says the posts were shared widely and threatening comments were made by other Facebook users in response.
In addition to LaForge, 10 other defendants are listed in the claim by their Facebook names for having "acted in concert among themselves and with others in furtherance of their efforts to harm the reputation and economic well-being of the plaintiff."
The claim also wants the defendants to publish a statement declaring Smith innocent of any wrongdoing.
Smith's lawsuit follows another notice of claim that was filed against LaForge by Jamie Su of Abbotsford in B.C. Supreme Court on Feb. 28. Su's lawyer Christopher Terepocki says he will not comment on the case until after it has concluded.
"At present my client is hesitant to draw further attention to a matter that has already cost his family's business significant economic loss," he said in an email.
The notice of claim says on Feb. 6 and thereafter, Su was identified in a series of false and malicious communications on Facebook suggesting that he was "involved in a scheme to procure sexual relations with an under-aged female."
It says as a result of the Facebook comments, "the plaintiff has been subjected to ridicule, hatred and contempt and has suffered damages to his reputation personally and in the way of his business." It says the posting has been viewed over 56,000 times and Su's family restaurant has been identified and maligned as a result.
Su is seeking general damages for defamation, his legal costs and a permanent order preventing LaForge from publishing or disseminating defamatory comments.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
LaForge has not filed a statement of defence, but he said in an interview that he has evidence including chatlogs from a sting operation his crew conducted that back up the allegations made against Su.
"There was no defamation. We didn't accuse him of anything, we didn't say anything about him that wasn't true," LaForge said.
Law enforcement officials across Canada have repeatedly expressed concern about the groups, warning the public that confronting alleged child predators could put people in danger and compromise police investigations.
British Columbia's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has also started an investigation of Surrey Creep Catchers after receiving a complaint, but it has not released any further details.
Linda Givetash, The Canadian Press