Canada and the rest of the world are awaiting the ruling on what is believed to be Canada’s first case of alleged criminal harassment, via Twitter. As serious as the ramifications of the ruling could be for the accused, they could also have an enormous impact on free speech on the Internet.
The case began in 2012, where Greg Elliott was accused and charged with criminally harassing two Toronto feminist political activists, Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly. Elliott and Guthrie met online in 2012 when she advertised for someone to create a free poster for an event she organized for the Women in Toronto Politics, a group she co-founded. Elliott responded to the advertisement and the two even met for dinner. Although Guthrie claims she was supposedly “creeped out” by Elliott, she continued her professional relationship with Elliott.
The two had a major falling-out, however, over how Guthrie treated a man named Bendilin Spurr. Spurr had created a violent video game where users could “punch” an image of feminist video blogger Anita Sarkeesian until the screen turned red. Guthrie, in her own words, sicced the Internet on Spurr. She Tweeted to prospective employers to warn them about Spurr and even sent the local newspaper a link to the story about the video game. Elliott disagreed with Guthrie’s tactic of public shaming stating that her actions were “every bit as vicious” as the video game.
Guthrie then blocked Elliott on Twitter, but he continued to watch the hashtags she followed and kept himself apprised of the events she organized. She supposedly believed he was obsessed with her politics.
During the trial, Elliott’s attorney, Chris Murphy, asked Guthrie to point to just one Tweet that had instilled fear in her, to which Guthrie responded her feelings developed over time. Murphy argued that Guthrie and Reilly simply hated Elliott and were determined to silence him because he disagreed with their feminist politics. In fact, the supposed victims met in 2012 to discuss how they would deal with Elliott, such as bombarding their followers with furious Tweets and re-Tweets about Elliott. Murphy likened the case to a high school spat and was astonished that the courts were acting as a referee in an online political debate. He stated that Reilly, an anonymous Twitter user who directed several hateful Tweets at Elliott, was abusing the system by alleging she was criminally harassed.
In Canada, criminal harassment is defined as any unwanted conduct- whether actually following someone or barraging him or her with unwanted Tweets- which causes the target to reasonably fear for his or her safety. Moreover, the perpetrator must know that his or her conduct made the target feel harassed or be reckless as to whether he or she felt harassed or not.
Murphy argued that the alleged victims never felt afraid but rather that they disagreed with Elliott’s politics.
After Guthrie’s accusations, Elliott, a graphic artist and father of four children, lost his job and could now face up to six months in prison if the court rules in Guthrie’s favor. As dire as those consequences are for Elliott, they could be even more dire for online free speech. Fear of being prosecuted for disagreeing with someone’s point of view or politics could greatly chill people’s ability to communicate on the Internet as a whole and not just Twitter.