Canadians cherish freedom of speech. So it was good to see an Ontario court set a fittingly high bar this past week protecting that right in the excitable Twitterverse, even when it is crude, vicious and hurtful.
As a media commons, Twitter is a marketplace of ideas. It ought to be a place where people are as free as possible to express themselves, even obnoxiously.
In a landmark criminal harassment trial involving Twitter, Justice Brent Knazan cleared Gregory Alan Elliott on charges arising from his ugly tweet wars with two women’s rights activists. Elliott’s messages may have been nasty, the judge ruled, but they did not meet the test of criminal conduct.
Elliott, he went on, “could, in the tradition of Canadian freedom of expression … have a controversial or even offensive opinion.” That was his right.
Predictably, the decision set a match to a powderkeg. The Twitterverse instantly erupted. Some hailed the ruling as a win for “#FreedomOfTweets” while others decried it as “a victory for creeps, misogynists & trolls.”
That passions run high comes as no surprise. It takes a strong stomach and a thick hide to venture out onto the Twitter Commons, where 140-character messages can be as vicious as a rat in a corner and unsettling as an anonymous note taped to the door.
The jokes can be funny — “Not sure if I want buns of steel or buns of cinnamon.” The puppy pictures are cute. And Twitter has become a powerful influence, shaping modern media communication and playing a key role in such global events as the Arab Spring.
But Twitter also has its dark side of shrill obsessions, creepy stalking, hate speech, flaming, obscenity, homophobia, sexism, racism and the rest of it. Cyber misogyny, seeking to put women “in their place,” ranks high on the nasty list.
The respected Pew Research Center reports that 73 per cent of adult Internet users have seen someone harassed online, and 40 per cent have personally felt the sting. Generally, it found, men are more likely to be called offensive names, be purposefully embarrassed or be physically threatened. Women are more likely to be stalked, sexually harassed or harassed in a sustained way. It’s not just incivility. It can be a safety issue.
All of which Justice Knazan rightly took into careful consideration before delivering his verdict.
In a lengthy, closely-reasoned judgment, the judge found Elliott not guilty of criminally harassing Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly — even though Elliott did harass them with an obsessive blizzard of tweets. He called each woman a “bitch,” made lewd comments about Reilly’s body and generally used “mean, crass and insulting” language. The judge also found his tweets to be homophobic, vulgar and obscene.
However, the Twitter wars cut both ways. The women tweeted or retweeted messages calling Elliott out for harassing women online, denouncing the “twisted s---” he wrote, making false allegations suggesting he was a pedophile “creeping” on young girls, and encouraging others to deface his artwork.
In analyzing all this, Justice Knazan readily accepted that the women felt harassed, frustrated and concerned. But after meticulously sifting the evidence, he concluded they had no “objectively reasonable” cause to fear for their safety, psychological or physical. Not once in Elliott’s barrage of tweets did he threaten physical or sexual violence. Obnoxious as he was, he committed no crime.
Welcome as this decision is, Regina v Elliott puts the Twitter flamers, haters and stalkers on notice. The courts are alert to the potential for criminal abuse of Twitter and other social media, and they take users’ safety seriously.
It’s too much to hope that a season of benign goodwill may yet dawn in the Wild West of the Twittersphere. But this verdict serves notice to any creeps, misogynists and trolls who may be tempted to cross the line. In tweeting, as in all things Internet, there’s much to be said for a modicum of #civility and self-restraint.