R v Elliott

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R v Elliott was a criminal harassment trial based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Gregory Alan Elliott was charged with criminally harassing three women in the Toronto area, following a protracted dispute with feminist activist Stephanie Guthrie. The case was considered to have implications for free speech in Canada, and to be the first prosecution for harassment solely involving activity on social networking website Twitter.[1] After the trial's conclusion earlier cases of criminal harassment on Twitter were found but Elliott's is still the only one known that didn't include any violent threats.[2]

Charges involving one of the women were dropped before trial. On January 22, 2016, Ontario Court of Justice judge Brent Knazan dismissed the remaining charges of criminal harassment.[1][3] Elliott soon returned to Twitter after having been restricted from using the Internet as a bail condition for three years.[1][4]

Background[edit]

Following her 2012 Kickstarter campaign for the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video series, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian began to receive large volumes of online criticism and harassment.[5] One form of harassment commonly decried in the media was a Newgrounds game in which players punched a photograph of Sarkeesian, causing her to appear progressively more bruised and injured.[6][7][8] The game's creator, Bendilin Spurr, who had previously made a similar game about punching conservative lawyer and anti-video-game activist Jack Thompson,[6] denied that the games promoted real violence.[9]

Stephanie Guthrie, a Toronto-based feminist activist, was among those who objected to Spurr's game, and contacted news organizations and potential employers in Spurr's hometown.[10][11] Gregory Alan Elliott, a Toronto artist,[12] criticized Guthrie's actions as "every bit as vicious as the face-punch game".[13] In response, Guthrie and others blocked him on Twitter and reported his account to the site's operators, who found he wasn't violating their terms of service. Elliott continued tweeting criticism to their accounts and commenting on their online and offline activities.[14][15] Guthrie convened a meeting of friends to discuss Elliott's behaviour.[16][17][18] An investigating officer later testified that he found that none of Elliott's messages were sexual in nature or threatened harm against any of the women.[19]

Trial[edit]

Elliott was charged by the Crown in November 2012 for breach of a peace bond and criminal harassment of Guthrie. Elliott was released on bail on the condition that he did not tweet or access Twitter, have a smartphone or use a computer with Internet access.[20] Two more women, Paisley Rae and Heather Reilly, subsequently went to police in January 2013.[15][19] Elliott lost his job shortly after his arrest.[16] The charge related to Rae was dropped by the Crown late into the trial on the day she was to take the stand to testify, while the charge related to Reilly continued.[21]

The case hinged on whether the women reasonably feared for their safety.[14][22] In cross-examination, Guthrie defended her continued tweeting and allegations about Elliott,[16][21][23][24] including creating hashtags to mock him,[25] after having blocked him.[26] Elliott's defense lawyer said that Guthrie was the one harassing[16] and abusing.[27]

The trial had to be delayed in March 2014 after the judge received a signed letter alleging a conspiracy against Elliott by the complainants, that also included the Ministry of the Attorney General.[28]

On January 22, 2016, all charges against Elliott were dismissed. Judge Knazan said there was no reasonable fear for their safety as Elliott's tweets contained nothing of a "violent or sexual nature" and there was no indication he intended to hurt the women.[3] Knazan wrote that Elliott was engaged in legitimate debate, and the judge gave the opinion that those who create Twitter hashtags do not have a right to control who uses the hashtags.[29]

On March 4, 2016, Judge Knazan amended his original ruling which claimed Elliott’s tweets were "obscene and homophobic in at least two instances" when it was discovered that the tweets were actually made by an account impersonating Elliott. The judge issued a correction saying "Mr. Elliott never wrote homophobic tweets, used homophobic language or was homophobic." He further stated that the fake account could be considered the criminal offense of "impersonation with intent to cause mischief."[30][29]

Reactions[edit]

Elliott is believed to be the first Canadian prosecuted solely for tweets, and several commentators believe the case has significant implications for free expression and freedom of speech in Canada.[1][14][21][22] Robert Tracinski of The Federalist opined that "[a]nti-harassment laws are being used as a tool of harassment."[18]

The National Post later reported that there had been three previous cases involving harassment on Twitter. In one case, Damany Skeene was convicted of criminal harassment and uttering threats against Conservative MP Michelle Rempel. Another involved a woman being found guilty of criminally harassing then Quebec premier Pauline Marois and the third involved a Montreal man pleading guilty to uttering threats against atheists.[2]

A Toronto coffee shop was the subject of controversy over artwork by Elliott that the shop displayed.[12]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Csanady, Ashley (January 22, 2016). "Toronto man found not guilty in Twitter harassment trial widely viewed as a Canadian first". National Post. Retrieved January 22, 2016. 
  2. ^ a b Csanady, Ashley (January 29, 2016). "The Twitter trial you never heard about: Toronto man found guilty of harassing Michelle Rempel". National Post. Retrieved January 29, 2016. 
  3. ^ a b "Gregory Alan Elliott not guilty in Twitter harassment case". CBC News. January 22, 2016. Retrieved January 25, 2016. 
  4. ^ Wong, Julia Carrie (January 22, 2016). "Canadian man found not guilty in Twitter harassment case". The Guardian. 
  5. ^ Watercutter, Angela (June 14, 2012). "Feminist take on games draws crude ridicule, massive support". Wired. 
  6. ^ a b Starr, Michelle (July 10, 2012). "How to make gamers look bad". CNET. 
  7. ^ Parkin, Simon (October 17, 2014). "Gamergate: A Scandal Erupts in the Video-Game Community". The New Yorker. 
  8. ^ Funk, John (July 6, 2012). "Flash Game Makes Players Beat Up "Tropes vs. Women" Creator". The Escapist. 
  9. ^ Klee, Miles (October 20, 2014). "Creator of 'Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian' says #Gamergate is anti-harassment". The Daily Dot. 
  10. ^ Lyonnais, Sheena (July 9, 2012). "Toronto Tweeter Causes Uproar Over Violent "Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian" Game". Toronto Standard. 
  11. ^ Casey, Liam (January 9, 2014). "Gregory Alan Elliott: Frustrations boil over in Twitter harassment trial". Toronto Star. 
  12. ^ a b Niedoba, Sarah (October 21, 2015). "Extra, Extra: John Tory Talks SmartTrack in London, Back to the Future for the Jays, and a Café Criticized for its Art". Torontoist. 
  13. ^ Blatchford, Christie (May 7, 2014). "Harassment case examines consequences of Internet wrath". Canada.com. 
  14. ^ a b c Hasham, Alyshah (July 24, 2014). "Twitter harassment trial: Second complainant says accused wouldn't leave her alone". Toronto Star. 
  15. ^ a b Casey, Liam (January 8, 2014). "First of three Toronto women testifies in Twitter harassment trial". Toronto Star. 
  16. ^ a b c d Blatchford, Christie (July 14, 2015). "Christie Blatchford: Ruling in Twitter harassment trial could have enormous fallout for free speech". nationalpost.com. National Post. Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  17. ^ Masnick, Mike (January 25, 2016). "Judge Tosses Out Criminal Case In Canada Over Twitter Fight". Techdirt.com. Retrieved April 19, 2016. 
  18. ^ a b Tracinski, Robert (August 7, 2015). "I Have Seen the Future, and It Is (Shudder) Canadian". The Federalist. Retrieved April 19, 2016. 
  19. ^ a b Hasham, Alyshah (January 7, 2014). "When does tweeting become criminal harassment?". Toronto Star. Retrieved January 21, 2016. 
  20. ^ "Alleged Twitter harasser Gregory Alan Elliott released on bail". Metro News. November 23, 2012. Retrieved January 29, 2016. 
  21. ^ a b c Nadeau, Jean-Phillippe (October 6, 2015). "Procès pour harcèlement criminel sur Twitter" [Trial for criminal harassment on Twitter]. CBC Radio Canada (in French). 
  22. ^ a b Chittley, Jordan (January 7, 2014). "Toronto harassment case may show how tweets can lead to jail". CTV News. 
  23. ^ R v Elliott, Written submissions of Mr. Elliott, 46 (Ontario Court of Justice April 7, 2015).
  24. ^ Urbanski, Kasimir (January 26, 2016). "How I almost became a refugee". everyjoe.com. Everyjoe. Retrieved March 22, 2016. 
  25. ^ Hasham, Alyshah (July 23, 2014). "Twitter harassment trial: Tweets not harassment, just a different political view, defence argues". Toronto Star. 
  26. ^ Cross, Jessica Smith (July 21, 2015). "Women had a right to fight back, Crown argues in Toronto Twitter harassment trial". Metro News. 
  27. ^ Hasham, Alyshah (November 12, 2014). "Twitter harassment trial: Defence says complainant shared false rumours about the accused". Toronto Star. 
  28. ^ Blatchford, Christie (March 20, 2014). "Christie Blatchford: Twitter harassment trial halted by surprise letter alleging 'fraudulent' conspiracy against accused". National Post. Retrieved January 22, 2016. 
  29. ^ a b Hess, Amanda. "Twitter Won't Help You. The Courts Won't Help You". Slate. 
  30. ^ Taekema, Dan (March 4, 2016). "Twitter harassment ruling amended to omit 'homophobic' tweets". Toronto Star. Retrieved March 6, 2016.