Don’t be a man on Twitter – part 2

In this post I look at some of the evidence given, and arguments made, during the course of the lengthy trial in R v Gregory Elliott.

Ms Guthrie, the lead complainant, had also complained to Twitter. But the company rejected her complaint, pointing out that she had engaged in active conversation with Elliott. Nor was Elliott infringing Twitter rules: he was not messaging her from multiple accounts, and he was not operating his account for the sole purpose of sending abusive messages, for example.

Ms Guthrie accepted that Elliott was “entitled to defend himself to the world, but not to me”, regardless of what she chose to tweet to or about him. This was obviously unreasonable.

The complainants were – of course – selective in the tweets they complained about. And as Elliott’s counsel pointed out, they maligned Elliott repeatedly on Twitter. This made it difficult for the Court to understand the context of many of Elliott’s Twitter conversations. Was he actually stalking the complainants, as they claimed, or simply defending himself against their barrage of unkind (and sometimes libellous) tweets? Few of his tweets were actually directed to the complainants, as opposed to mentioning them.

Both complainants agreed that Elliott had never threatened them or used sexually harassing language about them. His position was that they had attacked him, after he called them out for bullying others, and that he had been “in defense mode”.

In cross-examination, Guthrie defended her right to act as a Twitter vigilante by “calling out” others for alleged bigotry or harassing behaviour.  As for the young man who had posted the Anita Sarkeesian video, she was unapologetic about her public hounding of him, which she described as “siccing the internet” on Spurr. She had tweeted:

I think the Sault Ste Marie community should be aware where [sic] is a monster in their midst.

When she had been interviewed about her campaign against Spurr, Guthrie spoke disparagingly of men, stating “there is nothing left for them to fight for”. She confirmed in court her view that “men’s rights is kind of a crock”.

In cross-examination, she said it was okay to ruin another’s life.

I was trying to let as many people know that this was something Brendilin Spurr had done….if they subsequently took action that ruined Brendilin Spurr’s life, then he was the one that ruined it and not me….I was the messenger…I would not feel sorry about that. If that happened, that would be his actions that got him where he was.

Guthrie was challenged about a tweet she gave police, which falsely alleged that Elliott was a paedophile. She replied that she “wasn’t trying to harm him unduly”!

At the time, Guthrie was the leader of a political women’s organisation, Women In Toronto Politics. She was contemptuous of Elliott’s opinions, stating “Mr Elliott’s political views are ones that I feel are spurious”. She expressed enjoyment of  a parody account set up to mock Elliott, whom she dubbed her “least favourite creep on Twitter”. She said she was entitled to have a laugh at his expense.

By the time she was aware that Elliott was contemplating a libel action against her and the other complainants, Guthrie continued to discuss Elliott on Twitter, asserting that she was not libelling him.

Yet, it seems she was. One of her tweets read: “Toronto man Gregoary Alan Elliott, sexually harassing women on the internet since lord only know when.” He replied, “What is [her] fucking problem. Stop it.” Reilly (another accuser) then chipped in: “I want to #hulksmash him”.

In court, Guthrie sought to defend her attacks on Elliott, claiming that he was a misogynist, and that she wanted people to know about his behaviour. Reilly and others started using the hashtag GAEhole to describe Elliott, meaning “asshole”, whilst dubbing the group of women targeting him “Team Awesome”.

Reilly tweeted her followers:

He is so far up his ass, I have no idea how he breathes. You have some fantastic put downs, btw! #GAEsmackdown

She tweeted a few days later:

Apparently the dozens of women he’s harassed are all liars or insane, and I’m their mastermind.

!!! FFF [for fuck’s sake] the man is clearly delusional. And obsessively focusing on ‘fascist feminists’ 

A few days later, she tweeted:

I think he’s deluded, obsessive, manipulative and a narcissist. Ugh.

Unsurprisingly, Elliott’s counsel argued that the complainants would not have been taunting and vilifying him publicly, had they been genuinely in fear of him. Elliott tweeted Guthrie to ask her to stop harassing him by pretending to be harassed. She retaliated by tweeting all her followers, accusing Elliott of “serial harassment”. He replied:

Hey. I’m not creating orchestrated attackes [sic] against them. THEY created  #GAEhole and fake accounts w/my photo. So….Go fuck yourself.

Although Guthrie had blocked Elliott on Twitter, she promptly responded to his tweet. She also told another user, who suggested Guthrie ignore him: “when he’s attacking my work in feminism and women’s safety it’s hard to ignore”.

Reilly encouraged the circulation of claims that Elliott was a paedophile. She jeeringly advised him to update his profile pic:

Not working on the teens, it seems….Why don’t you update your profile pic? Afraid it will hurt your mack?

After Elliott’s arrest, Guthrie sent dozens of tweets about him as well giving three (possibly four) press interviews. She also tweeted a picture of her and two other women standing in fighting positions, with the caption “Come at us Bros”. She even suggested that Elliott had, in breach of his bail conditions, threatened to kill her. When challenged about this, she replied:

And when I receive a death threat, yeah, I think it’s reasonable for me to think that maybe he was the person who sent it. And, yeah, I think it’s okay to say that….I just said it was a possibility.

Guthrie also told the court that Elliott could not use hashtags that she had created for political events and debates.

What is the law? Elliott was charged under section 264 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which provides:

(1) No person shall, without lawful authority and knowing that another person is harassed or recklessly as to whether the other person is harassed, engage in conduct referred to in subsection (2) that causes that other person reasonably, in all the circumstances, to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them.

 (2) The conduct mentioned in subsection (1) consists of

  • (a) repeatedly following from place to place the other person or anyone known to them;
  • (b) repeatedly communicating with, either directly or indirectly, the other person or anyone known to them;
  • (c) besetting or watching the dwelling-house, or place where the other person, or anyone known to them, resides, works, carries on business or happens to be; or
  • (d) engaging in threatening conduct directed at the other person or any member of their family.

The Crown’s case was that Elliott had engaged in repeated communication with the complainants, amounting to harassment; that he knew, or was reckless as to whether, they were harassed; that his conduct caused the women to fear for their safety; and that, in all the circumstances, their fears were reasonable.

The defence case was that none of these ingredients was made out. Elliott talked more about, than to the complainants, and the backdrop was a freewheeling public debate about  misogyny vs misandry. This was an ugly political debate, in which both sides had resorted to childish name-calling.

The applicable case-law on harassment stated that harassment is more than being “vexed, disquieted or annoyed”. The Crown has to show that a complainant is “tormented…worried continually or chronically, plagued, bedeviled and badgered”.

The defence argued that neither complainant was genuinely afraid of Elliott. Reilly spoke of feeling “somewhat frustrated”, and of having “moderate concern” for her safety. Guthrie spoke of her anger at Elliott and told a newspaper that she only felt fear after he had used a hashtag relating to a public political debate, which she had organised. Both women had attacked him publicly. Reilly had promoted the “paedophile” slur, while Guthrie had continually taunted him. It would be illogical for people in genuine fear to behave in such a way.