Where do you draw the line between harassment and free speech? This week, it became a little clearer where the courts stand on that issue in Canada. In what is being hailed as the first case of its kind in Canada, a man accused of harassing two women on Twitter has been found not guilty.
Despite the fact that women Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly claimed that Gregory Alan Elliott was was harassing them on Twitter in 2012 — both women felt their safety was compromised, as they believed he was tracking their whereabouts — a judge found Elliott not guilty this week (according to Justice Brent Knazen’s Reasons for Judgement).
Guthrie and Elliott met in 2012 — she was thinking of hiring him to create a poster for an event but decided not to employ him. After that rejection, Elliott began getting into nasty Twitter debates with the two women. He once criticized Guthrie for her negative comments about the creator of a disgusting video game — the aim of which was to punch Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of several video games, in the face until her avatar turned black and blue.
And Elliott got seriously creepy when he called the two women hateful and fat, and tweeted: “A whole lot of ugly at the Cadillac Lounge tonight.” Gross yes, but is this harassment? The court doesn’t think so.
Here’s what we can learn from this groundbreaking trial:
1. Like it or not, people’s vulgar, gross opinions aren’t illegal
Judge Brent Knazan said that “however offensive or wrong they may be,” and despite the fact that the words Elliott used could be “vulgar and sometimes obscene,” Elliott hadn’t broken any laws. Because while Elliott may have been “using sexual and sexist language inappropriately,” this wasn’t enough to make the charges stick.
2. You can act pretty creepy and stay within the law
Guthrie claims she began to fear for her safety when Elliott began commenting on her actual physical location — he tweeted disparaging comments about her and her friends at a bar called The Cadillac Lounge.
“Additionally I am part of a ladies group that meets Mondays, and he is ‘tweet eavesdropping/stalking’ this group, which also leads many of us to be concerned for our safety in real life, as this has now begun to feel like a real life threat,” testified Guthrie in an email complaint in September of 2012.
She said she felt afraid because she “had no idea what his potential future intent could be if he would have chosen to escalate any of the harassment from being online to being in person.” But the judge dismissed her charges.
3. You can’t expect privacy on Twitter
Guthrie was upset by the volume of Elliott’s tweets or that he seemed to be trolling her, but the judge felt that Elliott still had the right to comment on online debates she was participating in (regardless of how creeped-out she felt).
Judge rules Twitter is like inviting strangers to listen to your phone conversations, can't expect privacy
— Alex Ballingall (@aballinga) January 22, 2016
4. Court expects victims to act a certain way
Justice Knazan points out that Reilly’s behavior made it seem as though she wasn’t afraid of the man she’d accused of harassment. Reilly took to Twitter to hurl insults at Elliott, suggesting he was a pedophile, after he made his insulting tweet about the women at The Cadillac Lounge. The judge said he had “doubt in my mind to whether she was afraid of Mr. Elliott.”
Guthrie was also cross-examined about why she’d led such a spirited fight to brand Elliott a troll, rather than acting afraid of him. She responded, with tongue and cheek, that she was sorry she was not “a perfect victim.”
5. Blocking someone doesn’t always silence them
Guthrie claims she blocked Elliott, but he still managed to connect with her indirectly by using hashtags she followed. Again, creepy, but in this case, not against the law.