Harassment

Common Sense and Liberal Values Prevail in Twitter Harassment Case

But attacks on political speech in the guise of preventing "harassment" will no doubt continue.

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On January 22, a three-year legal drama that made few headlines but was closely watched by those with an interest in free-speech and online-harassment issues came to an end in a Toronto courtroom. Gregory Alan Elliott,* a 55-year-old graphic artist, was found not guilty of criminal harassment toward feminist activists Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly. The trial judge took pains to stress that he felt the women were truthful and did feel harassed. But he also concluded that their perception of harassment was not reasonable, since it was based on the assumption that Elliott had no valid points to make or opinions to defend. 

Breitbart News columnist Allum Bokhari called the case's outcome the "Stalingrad" of the online speech wars, a key victory in the resistance to would-be censors and authoritarians. Vice columnist Sarah Ratchford deplored it as sending the message that "harassing women online is not a crime" and making the Internet "an even uglier place for Canadian women."

There is no question in my mind that the real issue in this case is the dangerous drift toward criminalizing political speech, often in the name of protecting women. Elliott's defenders may have oversimplified the facts at times—claiming that he was facing charges merely for disagreeing with feminists on Twitter. But here was a man with no criminal record facing six months in jail for tweets which, by the admission of the police officer handling the case, were neither threatening nor sexually harassing—and were part of mutual sniping. One of Elliott's offending comments, "Heather's fat ass gets fatter," was a response to Reilly urging other women to block him and using the hashtag #GAEhole.

Elliott and Guthrie first became acquainted in April 2012, when he volunteered to design a logo and poster, for free, for Guthrie's Women in Toronto Politics (WiTopoli) project. Elliott says he was genuinely enthusiastic about this at the time. The pair met for dinner and got along fine, but after some email discussions Guthrie told Elliott that her group had decided to go with another artist.

Guthrie later told the police that Elliott was "very angry" about this, but in fact, he sent her a friendly note which expressed the hope for future collaboration and signed it, "Love, Greg." (On the stand, Guthrie testified that she thought the email had a "seething undertone.") She also said she'd gotten a "creepy" vibe from Elliott when they met, particularly because of his repeated offers to give her a ride. Nonetheless, the two interacted amicably by email and on Twitter until July, when Elliott took issue with Guthrie's Twitter witch-hunt against another man.

That man was 24-year-old Ontario resident Bendilin Spurr, creator of an infamous online game in which players could virtually punch feminist videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian until her face looked bruised and bloodied. (Spurr had previously made a similar game targeting Jack Thompson, a conservative Christian crusader against videogame violence.) Having tracked down Spurr's Twitter account, Guthrie decided to, in her words, "sic the Internet on him." She not only publicly attacked him but tweeted information about his game to his local newspaper and sent out a general warning addressed to employers in Spurr's area.

Elliott objected to Guthrie's antics, suggesting that the retaliation was as repulsive as the face-punch game itself, and got embroiled in a heated Twitter argument with Guthrie and her supporters. After he tweeted that Guthrie's campaign was simply "revenge" which could conceivably drive Spurr to suicide, Guthrie replied, "I've had it with you" and blocked Elliott. Her friend and fellow activist Reilly later did the same.

Four months later, Elliott was under arrest for criminal harassment. His detractors say that during those months, he relentlessly hounded Guthrie and Reilly on Twitter to the point where they feared for their safety. He made derogatory remarks about them, posted in hashtags they frequented—making it likely they would see his tweets despite the block—and started his own hashtag, #FascistFeminists. Guthrie claimed that she started to feel he was obsessed with her and her work. Reilly said she became "concerned" about in-person stalking when Elliott tweeted a snide reference to them and their friends meeting at a Toronto pub ("A whole lot of ugly at the Cadillac Lounge tonight"), though the women had themselves tweeted about being at that location.

The defense, and Elliott's supporters, have countered that what happened was not harassment but a back-and-forth in which the alleged victims gave as at least as good as they got. Indeed, a look at the record recounted in Judge Brent Knazan's 85-page decision makes it difficult to conclude otherwise.  (Many materials from the case, including excerpts from the trial transcript and tweets entered into evidence, can also be found in an April 2015 defense brief available online, though the selection of those materials is obviously not unbiased.)

From July until November 2012, Elliott was repeatedly attacked and taunted by Guthrie, Reilly, and their supporters ("It was me against a hundred of them," he told me in an interview a few days after the verdict). He was reviled as an "MRA" (men's rights activist) who "disguises his feelings about women with a cloak of 'care' for their freedom." At one point, Guthrie tweeted her followers about a spoof account somebody had set up  to mock Elliott, whom she described as her "least favourite creep on Twitter."

Guthrie, Reilly and their friends also took to monitoring Elliott's timeline and "calling out" what they regarded as his sexual harassment of other women, mainly in exchanges with his own online friends. There is no question that Elliott, who is divorced, sometimes made rather awkward romantic overtures toward women with whom he interacted on Twitter. He also posted tweets with ribald overtones that were not directed to anyone specific, a part of his general eccentric online persona. (Elliott, whose graphic art consists primarily of stenciled texts, says he "would use Twitter as an experimental artist.") And he engaged in banter which, while often innocuous or mutually bawdy, at times crossed the line and made its recipients uncomfortable. On those occasions, Elliott promptly backed off and apologized. Yet Guthrie and her supporters portrayed him as not only a "creep" but practically a sexual predator who "hates women" and needed to be exposed.

Perhaps most egregiously, not long before Elliott's arrest, Reilly and another member of Guthrie's coterie whipped up a mini-storm of outrage around the claim that he had been "hitting on" and "creeping on" a 13-year-old girl. This was based on an exchange in which Elliott made a mild flirtatious remark to a female user who responded by angrily accusing him of being a pedophile and claiming she was 13. (She was later confirmed to be a young adult.) 

What's more, Guthrie and Reilly seemed to be of the opinion that Elliott essentially had no right to respond to their allegations. On cross-examination, Guthrie stated that Elliott was entitled to "defend himself to the world" but not to her; however, to her and Reilly, that right clearly did not include posting in "their" hashtags or reading and referencing their tweets. In Guthrie's view, Elliott was obligated to respect her demand to "stop smearing [her] work," but his demand to "stop libeling him" imposed no obligation on her because, in her mind, what she was doing wasn't libel.

The defense argued (fairly persuasively, in my view) that Guthrie and Reilly, at the very least, drastically exaggerated the degree to which they felt intimidated by Elliott's actions. Some of their statements, both at the time and later, suggest that they were annoyed rather than afraid. When another Twitter user, Globe and Mail columnist Denise Balkissoon, said that she would simply ignore Elliott, Guthrie replied:

It's what I'd like to do, but when he's attacking my work in feminism & women's safety it's hard to ignore. 🙁 

In her trial testimony, Reilly said that she didn't feel Elliott was "picking on [her] per se" but she "didn't appreciate … randomly being dragged into Twitter fights," or having Elliott's derogatory remarks about her posted in hashtags where a wide audience could see them. At times, the complainants contradicted themselves; thus, Reilly suggested that she changed her Twitter avatar from a photo of herself to a cartoon image because she was concerned about harassment from Elliott, but then admitted that she had changed it at some earlier point out of general concerns about being harassed.

"Ms. Guthrie's unreasonable premise that Mr. Elliott was irrational and had nothing valid to say meant that she never put his tweets into any context," wrote Judge Knazan. "The very fact of his tweeting any hashtag she followed or any tweet about her or with her handle harassed her. She would not even allow for the possibility that he had any reason apart from the obsession with her that [s]he perceived to tweet about her. Given that she had a leadership role in the campaign to denounce him, that is not reasonable." (Emphasis added)

Slate columnist Amanda Hess has lamented that Judge Knazan's ruling tells women they have no legal recourse against online harassers if they fight back by using ridicule and public shaming. But the line between attacking and fighting back can get fuzzy, on the Internet as in real life. It is notable, for instance, that Elliott did not attack or even mention Guthrie or Reilly on Twitter for over two months, from early September until mid-November 2012, except for one passing remark in a reply to another user. This truce was broken when Guthrie, Reilly and their friends decided to "call out" Elliott's alleged pedophilic advances to a minor. At that point, one could reasonably say that he was the one "fighting back"—which is certainly how he perceives the overall situation.

"I don't mind a good fight, but [if] I have a choice, how do I deal with it?" he says. "I would block, I would do what I could, I would ignore. But when you see your name come up and slanderous things, you have to respond." (Elliott also denies that he was obsessed with his online battles with the "fascist feminists," pointing out that his tweets to or about them made up less than 0.5 percent of his prolific overall tweeting.) 

Both Hess and Vice's Ratchford questioned Judge Knazan's knowledge and competence when it comes to the Internet and the social media—ironically citing as evidence an error in the prosecution's favor, namely the fact that the judge attributed to Elliott a nasty homophobic tweet that had been sent from the parody account. Hess even suggested that an Internet-savvy "smart teen" could have done a better job. But it's very doubtful that a smart teen would have been particularly sympathetic to an attempt to throw someone in jail over a Twitter war.

Ultimately, this is a case about political speech. As the defense brief put it, "A politician (Ms. Guthrie) who transmits her political opinions to the world on Twitter cannot reasonably be fearful when another politically engaged Twitter user (Mr. Elliott) comments on her politics on the same social media platform."

Elliott's son Clayton Elliott, 31, who has been actively involved in his father's defense, says that he believes Guthrie's real fear was "brand damage," her feminist activism being the "brand" in question. One might also say that her fear was losing control of the discourse in feminist spaces, where opinions such as Elliott's—for instance, that "blaming the majority of normal men for rape is wrong"—are seen as beyond the pale.

Thankfully, both common sense and liberal values have prevailed for now, and Elliott is a free (if broke) man. But attacks on political speech in the guise of preventing "harassment" will no doubt continue. According to Vice, Ontario MP Cheri DeNovo is considering introducing "a new bill to address online harassment of and verbal violence toward women." Otherwise, DeNovo says, "You can say whatever you will about whatever woman you want, it's just freedom of expression."

Actually, yes, unless what you say fits into the narrow category of libel or explicit or implied threats, you can say whatever you will about whatever woman or man you want. That a politician in a democracy would have a problem with that is something that should cause us all reasonable fear.

Disclosure: I participated in a livestream fundraiser for Elliott's defense fund last November. 

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  1. But he also concluded that their perception of harassment was not reasonable…

    No one cares for the snowflake once it’s turned to slush.

  2. He lost his livelihood and his savings.

    This wasn’t a victory… He just lost less than his enemies hoped.

    1. My sentiments exactly. Unless they’re made to pay even more harshly for this fiasco, they pretty well won. The process is the punishment.

      1. …he believes Guthrie’s real fear was “brand damage,” her feminist activism being the “brand” in question.

        But for a feminist crusader, having the state side against her and losing official control of the message is the greater loss. So, um, victory.

        1. “Guthrie’s real fear was “brand damage,””

          BRAAAAAAAAAAAAANDS

      2. The process is the punishment.

        To us all. At least, judicial officiating over Twitter makes my soul hurt.

  3. Couldn’t the young adult who claimed to be 13 be sued for slander and defamation. She knowingly falsely accused him of being a pedophile with the intent to cause harm to his reputation. Seems a pretty open and closed case.

  4. “”Heather’s fat ass gets fatter,” was a response to Reilly urging other women to block him and using the hashtag #GAEhole.”

    If only there had been a judge and jury available to me when i confronted Brandi Mooney in the playground in 3rd grade… Perhaps I would not have spent the following week taking out garbage for the lunch ladies simply because she was an expert at fake-crying.

    (shakes fist)

    She also called me a gay-hole.

  5. Twitter Harassment Case Ends in Victory for Free Speech

    … in Canada

  6. This article is thinly veiled hate speech agitprop. The article never mentioned the law under which this guy was charged in the first place. It is a completely misguided and vague harassment law that is commonly used in Canada to bully innocent people. They don’t have the same basic respect for free speech that we do in the US, where something like this could never happen. The article conveniently fails to mention that simple fact. Why? Because the author agrees with it in principle and this case is actually a validation of it. She never claims otherwise. This is why we should not be turning to Canada for guidance on free speech issues (e.g. Cruz and Frum).

    1. “where something like this could never happen”

      bullshit

    2. What the fuck are you even talking about? Get your head checked, moron.

    3. Step away from the tin foil. Yes, Reason writers can get a bit cosmopolitan at times, but this is not one of those instances.

    4. Pet peeve: propoganda in media isn’t agitprop, it’s just propaganda.

      1. But it’s such a cool word! It’s like using apparatchik when you mean, “bureaucrat”, so kewl.

  7. Well there’s 6 minutes of my life I won’t be getting back. Can Reason please put a “Canada” warning so that I can avoid this derp?

  8. It’s Canada. They have a stunted concept of free speech such as going after anti-porn activists under pr0n laws and tearing out pages of dirty comic books when sent through the mail.

    One of my friend’s Heavy Metal comic had black marker blacking out the naughty parts on the page, scrawled over by some dopey customs prude.

  9. Elliott’s defenders may have oversimplified the facts at times?claiming that he was facing charges merely for disagreeing with feminists on Twitter.

    Seems like that is not an oversimplification at all.

  10. Wow, that’s a comprehensive opinion.

    My take is that (1) things started to go bad when Elliot proposed that Guthrie not dox the guy who wrote the punch in the face video game, which seemed to be the tipping point for Guthrie to decide that Elliot was an “MRA”, a “creep”, etc.”; (2) Guthrie thinks it’s perfectly acceptable for her to use the internet to flame the video game guy or Elliot; (3) Guthrie also thinks she has a right to demand that Elliot not use her name in tweets or use hashtags Guthrie created, even when responding to charges Guthrie herself started.

    1. It’s how people like her rise to prominence in her movement. You aren’t somebody unless you’re a victim. Preferably by being victimized defending womankind. With that kind of incentive you’re going to end up with this sort of hypocritical opinion.

      1. I think there is probably a natural karma that happens for people like Guthrie. If she has any conscience at all, he will try to justify her actions – this implies a dehumanising of men.

        It’s well known that some people can hold contradictory thoughts in their head and still function. But it’s not necessarily easy to function that way for a lifetime..

        It’s possible that she will suffer because of her own vindictiveness. You could feel sorry for her, but I feel more sorry for the people she has damaged

      2. It’s not very hard to fall victim to such ignorance and hate. Ever heard of the saying “Pity no fool”? It’s just that some women, not enough, feel that they should stand up to bullies and call their shit out. I feel like a victim just reading this rubbish. It’s like watching a really bad reality show. I just came here to get some perspective and I’ve seen quite enough.

  11. So the solution for Denovo is to infantilize women.

  12. however, to her and Reilly, that right clearly did not include posting in “their” hashtags or reading and referencing their tweets.

    These people actually believe that they “own” combinations of characters on the internet.

    #FuckingMorons.

  13. It is a victory for classical liberal values but a defeat for modern social liberal values.

  14. sending the message that “harassing women online is not a crime” and making the Internet “an even uglier place for Canadian women.”

    So, the message modern feminism is trying to send is that… Women harassing men is totally ok because privilege, but if those men have the gall to harass back, the Internet is now unsafe for women because they’re delicate flowers who need state protection from harsh words.

    But remember, feminism is all about equality according to themselves. And it’s the radical notion that women are people. Got it? Just shut the fuck up and accept it.

    1. Their entire premise, in fact the entire premise of any “oppressed group” is that mere possession, by immutable characteristic, of a “societal privilege” (white, straight, etc. conferred by simple sociological majority) disqualifies any -ism against the possessor; this is supported by the fallacious and undefined “power” that is assumed under the mantle of majority.

      In short, their syllogisms look like this:
      1) You are White and Straight.
      White and Straight confers onto You the concept of Privilege.
      You have Privilege
      Privilege equals Power in Society.
      You have Power in Society.

      2) Being “Prejudiced” is treating People of Different Characteristics Negatively.
      Everyone is Prejudiced. (Blacks can be Prejudiced, Whites can be Prejudiced)
      Racism is Power plus Prejudice.
      The “System” is Prejudiced against People of Different Characteristics resulting in Negative treatment.
      The “System” benefits those with Privilege.
      Therefore, You are Racist. (Notice how this is automatic and involuntary)

      Spelling it out really hurts my brain. I believe this is a product of Feminist Theory, Post-Modernism, and Marxism being taught under the guise of “fairness.”

      Let’s all define our terms on immutable characteristics, shall we? People still don’t know how to tell someone “Sorry I don’t feel guilty for the way you choose to lead your life.”

    2. there is harassment and there are threats. two completely different issues.

  15. Steph Guthrie on 26th September 2013 at the TEDx debating forum held in Toronto, she gives a thirteen-minute speech on dealing with internet “trolls.” Rather than ignore them she urges feminists to confront them by forming Twitter mobs. She describes how she arranged the harassment of Ben Spurr the author of the Anita Sarkeesian game.

    She expands by saying that “within an hour hundreds of Twitter users were participating ?the post spread like wildfire drawing thousands more into the discussion,” leading to “new lines in the sands for social interaction” and was “shared 30,000 times? thousands of people were in his virtual face.” If this not inciting harassment of someone, I would be at a loss.

    Secondly, A blog post appeared on the 26th November 2012 claiming to be from one of Elliott’s sons. He claims that in the eleven years with their mother, Elliott was, “tyrannical, severely physically abusive and emotionally abusive..I had to witness his violent rages for years..If my mum’s black and blue face isn’t enough to prove that this guy is a monster?I believe he should be behind bars..”

    One of his sons Clayton Elliott vehemently denied that he or his brothers wrote the post.

    One can only conclude how evil some feminists are.

  16. just before I saw the receipt that said $7527 , I accept that my mom in-law woz like actualey making money in there spare time from there pretty old laptop. . there aunt had bean doing this for less than twentey months and at present cleared the depts on there appartment and bourt a great new Citro?n 2CV . look here…….
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  17. “Common Sense and Liberal Values Prevail”

    No they didn’t. A man was hounded, arrested, and bankrupted based on the supposed feelz of feminist propagandists, which a judge found to be unreasonable.

    The male victim paid a huge price, while the feminist aggressors paid none.

    Mission accomplished for feminist thugs using the state to terrorize their political opponents.

    The thugs prevailed, and will continue to do so until they are made to pay a price for malicious and dishonest prosecution.

    1. Yes, a male “victim” paid a huge price for being an ignorant bully who threatens women on Twitter. You answer for your crimes (stupidity) one way or another eventually. Karma prevailed and will continue to as long as this dude continues to be a sad, sad excuse for a man.

      1. And I have many, many intelligent, amazing and gorgeous men in my life. I am not a man hater. I fucking love “Men”. Real men. This guy and his MRA chids and the fucking “Return of Kings” douchebaggering chumps can all go suck it.

        1. Hatred. Mmmm, nice.

          Is he also a hater? Like you, I mean.

          Also, I’m guessing you DON’T have any really intelligent men in your life. I suspect you have, all and exclusively, men who have absorbed the simplistic rhetorical solution-tree that allows them to be accepted as a feminist ally. Not much intelligence involved in that, but then, none allowed, amirite? We see from your hysterical (yep, sexist) overreaction (real) to Elliot and his posts-you are moral and right, he is automatically evil and even if he isnt, he’s just hiding it. Not much thinking required at all.

          Would have been lovely for the judge to hand the bailiff the transcript of Elliot’s posts and ask him to examine it for “seething subtext” and scrape any such into an evidence jar.

          You people (something-ist) are definitely hilarious, fer sher.

  18. ‘Otherwise, DeNovo says, “You can say whatever you will about whatever woman you want, it’s just freedom of expression.”‘

    Notice the implicit focusing on women. This, for her, is a law to protect women only. Once again, a feminist speaks, and equality is nowhere to be seen.

  19. There are MANY very disturbing elements at work here. Most disturbing of all is the allegation of a conspiracy up to and including the Attorney General of Ontario. The state EASILY blew a million taxpayer bucks here, and for what exactly? The fact Mr. Elliott said a rabid professional feminist had a “fat ass” on twitter? That’s all I could take away from this.

    Fuk Me. There are fundamental problems here. Failing to see the forest for the trees is inexcusable. I see NO REASON why another innocent man couldn’t be subjected to exactly the same persecution tomorrow. There is a massive stink in this Denmark.

    http://neer-do-well-hall-of-in…..thrie.html

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