Can Online Harassment Result in IRL Jail Time?

In what’s largely considered to be a first-of-its-kind case, a Toronto man was charged with criminal harassment for allegedly using Twitter to attack two Toronto feminists. Today, he was found not guilty—but his case has raised some very interesting questions about the real-life consequences of online behaviour. Here’s a backgrounder

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Gregory Alan Elliott

Gregory Alan Elliott’s case is largely considered the first of its kind for tackling the issue of Twitter trolls

Gregory Alan Elliott, the first person in Canada to be charged with criminal harassment as a result of online behaviour is, depending on whom you ask, either a martyr for free expression or an Internet troll. The graphic designer allegedly used Twitter to harass two Toronto feminist advocates, Steph Guthrie and Heather Reilly. (Charges involving a third woman were dropped.) Guthrie and Reilly claim Elliott’s online conduct, which allegedly included name-calling, insults (“fat-ass,” “ugly”) and hashtags like #fascistfeminists, made them fear for their safety. Elliott’s defence is that his tweets, which never strayed into violent or sexually threatening territory, represented his political beliefs and opinions, and were often only in response to the complainants’ own tweets. (The complainants, for their part, allegedly used the nickname “GAEhole” to refer to Elliot.)

Not surprisingly, this case has attracted significant media attention. American writer and activist Lindy West views it as a “heartening development” in addressing troll-like conduct against women. The National Post’s Christie Blatchford, however, argues it may represent “enormous fallout for free speech online.” These differing views sum up how the battle lines have been drawn around the case, which is as complex and volatile as a Reddit subthread.

It all began in July 2012, when Guthrie and Elliott got into an argument on Twitter about how the Internet should respond to the creation of a video game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. The game allowed players to punch an animated version of feminist gaming blogger Anita Sarkeesian in the face until the screen turned red.

Outraged, Guthrie took to Twitter and advocated that her followers “sic the Internet” on the game’s male creator. Elliott took issue with that approach, likening it to cyberbullying. A flurry of insulting hashtags, tweets and pointed retweets ensued on both sides. (Reilly, a friend of Guthrie’s, also got into the mix.)

In September 2012, Reilly reported Elliott to Twitter. The company declined to punish him, however, claiming his behaviour didn’t breach its code of conduct. That same month, Guthrie asked Elliott to stop contacting her and referencing her online; Elliott asked Guthrie to do the same. In November 2012, Elliott participated as a commenter in a Twitter discussion for which Guthrie was a panelist. The topic? How to deal with trolls. During the event, Elliott allegedly sent 11 tweets that the complainants appeared to have perceived as a direct challenge to Guthrie and which felt like stalking. Elliott claimed he was simply expressing his opinion and that the forum was open to all. Elliott’s participation in the Twitter chat appears to have been a tipping point for Guthrie—later that month, she contacted the police; he was subsequently charged with criminal harassment. Soon after, Reilly also went to police claiming harassment by Elliott, which resulted in a second charge.

The verdict for Elliot’s case is set to be delivered on Jan. 22; the trial came complete with a Law & Order–like plot twist: at one point, a former acquaintance of Guthrie’s wrote a letter to the judge that claimed Elliott was the victim of a conspiracy hatched by the complainants. (The Crown declined to comment for this piece; attempts to contact Guthrie and Reilly were unsuccessful.)

“The Twittersphere better look out,” cautions Elliott’s lawyer, Chris Murphy, referring to the freedom of speech implications if his client is found guilty. Or not, says David Grossman, an attorney at Irving Mitchell Kalichman LLP in Montreal, who also has experience with freedom of speech laws but is not involved in this case. He doesn’t view the verdict as having quite so definitive an effect.

“I see cases like this one…as part of the ongoing dialogue that we have in democratic societies about where the [legal] line gets drawn,” he explains. This may be the first time a person’s Twitter behaviour has resulted in a harassment charge, but as Grossman notes, it definitely isn’t going to be the last.

This piece ran in FLARE’s Winter 2015 issue; since then Elliott has been found not guilty of criminal harassment.

Related:
How Did Harassment Become Normal Tinder Behaviour?
Are Women Reluctant to Use the Word Rape?
2015 Feminist Social Media Moments We Won’t Forget

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