First trial in Canada where a criminal charge based entirely on Twitter

By Christie Blatchford
Post Media
Jan 10, 2014

What is believed to be the first trial in Canada where a criminal charge based entirely on Twitter activity is unfolding at one of the fustiest old courtrooms in the country.
No. 123 at Toronto's Old City Hall courts is on the second floor - naturally, given that the courtroom numbering system was designed by someone severely under the influence of a paralyzing narcotic.
The only microphones in the room are the old-fashioned jobs in those little stands, and only Ontario Court Judge Brent Knazan and the lawyers have them. They're better than nothing, but, given the creaks and groans of the old building and general rattling about of the lawyers, not much better.
And, in this trial involving uber-modern social media, where many of the exhibits are lengthy sheets of tweets with various hashtags and witnesses talk as if in a secret code ("Hashtag randomactsofkindness hashtag TOpoli@amirightfolks be Nice Guy to get something in return"), there is but one giant old TV monitor to display them.
Reasonably enough, the set is turned so Judge Knazan and the lawyers can see it, but in the result, neither public nor press get a glimpse of the screen.
That's just the physical plant stuff.
This is the trial of Gregory Elliott, a 53-year-old artist and father of four, who is charged with three counts of criminal harassment against three Toronto feminists.
The officer in charge of the case, Toronto Police Det. Jeff Bangild, testified this week that in his investigation, he found no tweets from Elliott that contained any threats to any of the women; had he, Bangild said, he would have laid different charges.
Apparently, a criminal harassment charge is rooted in the alleged victim's perception of the offending conduct.
If said conduct, whether that be physically following someone or repeatedly communicating with that person, causes the person "reasonably, in all the circumstances, to fear for their safety," that's enough, says the Criminal Code.
This explains the tone of prosecutor Marnie Goldenberg's questions Thursday to Stephanie Guthrie, the 29-year-old feminist who was the first complainant to come forward about Elliott.
Several times, as Goldenberg would wrap up an area of examination with Guthrie, she would ask how she "felt" about a particular set of tweets.
And Guthrie, who is preposterously articulate and self-possessed, would reply, "I was feeling a bit stalked" or "it made me feel scared for my safety … I felt very much like he was obsessed with me, fixated on me" or "It led me to believe he had an unhealthy fixation …"
You get the drift: She felt creeped out by Elliott; therefore, he is criminally charged.
Yet it's clear Guthrie can dish it out pretty well, too.
In 2012, the year in which Elliott allegedly harassed her, she drew attention to a 25-year-old man from Sault Ste. Marie who had invented a "beat up Anita Sarkeesian" video game, where users could punch an image of the feminist video blogger until the screen turned red.
Guthrie wondered aloud online if she should "sic the Internet" on the man and tweeted, "I want his hatred on the Internet to impact his real-life experience."
For her efforts, she was of course blasted with hate tweets and vile notes.
Curiously, Elliott and Guthrie appeared to get along splendidly at first.
She is one of the founders of witopoli (Women in Toronto Politics) group and was busy beating the bushes for help to launch its first events. Elliott tweeted he'd be happy to do a poster, and eventually the two had dinner to discuss it.
Later, when she went to the police, she said she'd been creeped out right away, felt "very seedy," that there was "something about his eyes" and the way he leaned forward over the table that gave her the heebie-jeebies.
"He gave you a bad feeling?" Chris Murphy, Elliott's lawyer, asked as he began his cross-examination.
"I wouldn't say it was horrendous," Guthrie replied with amusement, "but I found him very intense."
Elliott offered to pick up the tab; she refused. He repeatedly offered her a drive home; she refused. But, she agreed, he made no physical passes; he didn't threaten her; said nothing remotely sexual.
"His harassment of me," Guthrie sniffed, "wasn't sexual in nature, and that's important to note."
But his thrice-offered drive, she said, was "a violation of my boundaries," which she'd taken care to draw.
"Seems like the time to end it," Murphy remarked.
"And I did," Guthrie replied, but not before saying she was looking forward to working with him and even pronouncing him "kind and awesome" in one tweet.
All this, she explained, was pragmatic business manners, especially for someone who was working with no budget.
Plus, she said, she was trying to "assuage" the frustration she sensed in Elliott, the anger she detected roiling underneath his surface pleasantries.
While Elliott hasn't testified yet - and may never take the stand, as is his right - he is intense, as Guthrie said, as intense perhaps as she is.
While she was being crossexamined about the political leanings of witopoli - and which politicians she had invited or not - by Murphy, Guthrie at one point rolled her eyes in exasperation.
Asked about it, she said, "I really don't see the relevance of the political leanings of the people at my meetings, or to the case."
At this, the judge gently reminded her it was his job to determine relevance, not hers.
On Wednesday night, planning to attend the trial, I emailed a colleague to ask what she thought of alleged victim and alleged perp.
My colleague is a brilliant observer of the human condition and replied with this: "I think they should marry each other."
I had no idea what that meant until I saw Elliott and Guthrie in action: They are cut from the same cloth, sure that every thought that flits into their heads ought to be expressed; prolific tweeters (if not so much as one of the other alleged victims, who has sent out almost 170,000 tweets, which is roughly one per breath), and what my old friend Moose calls high maintenance.

If only this were a rom-com; they'd so end up together.