A Toronto man's repeated and often insulting Twitter interactions with two women's rights activists would not reasonably have led them to fear for their safety, an Ontario judge said Friday in acquitting him of criminal harassment.
There is no doubt that Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly were harassed by Gregory Alan Elliott over several months in 2012, either due to the volume or content of his tweets, but that alone does not meet the legal threshold for a conviction, Ontario Court Judge Brent Knazan said.
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The two activists testified at the trial that they believe Elliot kept tabs on them and their whereabouts through social media, even after they blocked his account.
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But Elliott's tweets contained nothing of a "violent or sexual nature," and there was no indication he intended to hurt them, Knazan said.
In his tweets, Elliott was largely explaining himself and furthering his views "however offensive or wrong they may be," the judge said, while recognizing the language could be "vulgar and sometimes obscene."
There were rumblings in the courtroom as Knazan read his lengthy decision. Supporters for both sides filled the benches, with some even sitting on the floor.
The charges were dismissed.
Stands by actions
Speaking to reporters outside the court, Elliott stood by his actions and indicated he would not behave differently — if given the chance to do it all over — despite the judge's at-times unflattering assessment of his behaviour.
"Everything I did was within the law," he said. "I don't know if I would change anything."
"I've always loved and respected women, but I also love and respect freedom of speech," he added.
He did, however, say being away from Twitter for more than two years as the case worked through the court has left him with a renewed appreciation for face-to-face contact. Prior to stopping in 2012, he said he was sending out about 300 tweets per day.
Elliott said he's "thinking" about going back to Twitter.
Later that same day, he tweeted the message "You can stand for something, but you can't misunderstand for something."
The Criminal Code prohibits anyone from knowingly or recklessly harassing another person through conduct that causes that person to reasonably fear for his or her safety.
The case is believed to be the first criminal harassment case in Canada involving Twitter and, according to Elliot's lawyer, sends a strong message to users of social media.
"You can definitely be convicted of criminal harassment on Twitter," Chris Murphy told reporters. "But at the same time the person receiving these tweets has to take it in context."
Murphy maintained throughout the trial Elliott had not made threatening remarks against Guthrie or Reilly, and described their argument as an "ugly political debate."
"As long as you're not speaking in a threatening manner you're allowed to express yourself on Twitter," he added. "And if a person becomes fearful, that fear will not be reasonable."
Guthrie met Elliott, who works as an artist, in 2012 when she considered hiring him to design a poster for an event she was working on. She did not hire him, and later that year they had heated exchanges online on topics including Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and a violent, anti-feminist video game.
Elliott crossed paths with Reilly through a Twitter account connected to Guthrie, and they also exchanged heated comments. Elliott made vulgar remarks to Reilly, the court heard.
Reilly testified that by September 2012 she was concerned for her safety — most notably after Elliott made a comment online about a particular bar while she was there with friends. She complained to police.
Elliott's lawyer characterized the online interactions as "an ugly political debate" and said his client never threatened or made sexual comments to the women.
Upon delivering his 80-page ruling, the judge noted the Crown was required to prove Elliott knew he was harassing the women, and that they were reasonably fearful from that harassment.
Elliott had to know he was criminally harassing the women for the charge the stick, Knazan said.
But, for example, because Guthrie continued to respond to Elliott's tweets, the judge said Elliott didn't know he was harassing her, even though he knew she had blocked his account.
The Crown also had to prove Elliott sent the tweets in question, a burden of proof the defence argued had not been met. Elliott said the tweets from his account could have been tampered with or altered.
The defence also argued the judge couldn't understand all the circumstances of the case without having all the relevant tweets, which were not collected by the police.
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