VOICE OF REASON COMES TO TWITTER
A wise colleague remarked, as, at the Old City Hall courts, Judge Brent Knazan was reading aloud his decision in the infamous Twitter trial on Friday, virtually all the players in the case were a little unhinged.
Or, as he put it, “There isn’t a hinge to be found” among them.
(My colleague and I were at another courthouse, waiting for a jury in another case, following the delivering of the decision — on Twitter, of course.)
What my friend really meant, I think, was that the alleged harasser, Toronto graphic artist Gregory Alan Elliott, and his purported victims, feminist activists Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly, are all a little … intense, almost evangelical, at least about Twitter.
Elliott was charged with criminally harassing the two women by repeatedly communicating with them in 2012 via Twitter and various hashtags they created or with which they were affiliated.
He was acquitted, not, the judge was at pains to point out, because he didn’t find Guthrie and Reilly credible when they testified they felt harassed and were genuinely fearful, but because that fear was unreasonable.
It’s a rather lovely judgment, in my view, first of all, because Knazan came to the right decision — Twitter really is, to borrow a line from an old Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ song, “the great wide open” — but also because of how respectfully the judge did it.
He believed Guthrie and Reilly when they testified (and though I didn’t hear Reilly’s evidence, I heard all or most of Guthrie’s, and I believed her, too, and admire her tremendously).
He believed they genuinely felt harassed, as the Criminal Code defines it, but found that Elliott couldn’t have known this, at least in part because, for instance, even after Guthrie “blocked” him from tweeting to her, she occasionally communicated with him.
He also believed they genuinely feared for their safety, but, Knazan said, unreasonably so.
With Guthrie, for instance, what frightened her about Elliott was the sheer volume of his tweets about her, and, the judge said, “her perception that he was obsessed and fixated on her and her work.”
But Guthrie’s significant objection was, as the judge put it, that “Mr. Elliott’s views were spurious and garbage and of no value; the contents of his tweets were irrelevant; if she didn’t want to hear from him and blocked him, then he should not use her handle and risk her seeing what he had written.
“… Another premise of Ms. Guthrie’s is that Mr. Elliott was not allowed to tweet using hashtags that she created, was closely associated with or followed. “But he was.” With Reilly, it appears from the decision, Elliott was far more rude and crude than he was to Guthrie.
But neither woman is a delicate flower. Guthrie, as she put it, once decided to “sic the Internet” on a stupid young man who had made an appalling face-punching game where a user could “punch” the face of prominent feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian and turn the screen red with her blood, and took steps to ensure the young man suffered real-life consequences.
In fact, Elliott’s disagreement with her about this sort of tactic was the occasion for their online falling-out.
And Reilly retweeted false and very damaging allegations against Elliott.
And the thing about Twitter is that, as Guthrie once said, it’s the equivalent of a public square, and public squares, as anyone who has been in one knows, are filled with all sorts of people — the informed and the madly uninformed; the polite and the piggy; the mild and the savage. The public square is the living embodiment of free speech and freedom of expression, which is why more than a few of them around the world, notably in London’s Hyde Park, have a Speakers’ Corner, where almost anything goes.
Ditto Twitter. Hashtags are open to the world; nobody owns them.
“On the evidentiary record,” Knazan wrote, and here he was talking about Reilly, “asking a person to stop reading one’s feed from a freely chosen open account is not reasonable. Nor is it reasonable to ask someone to stop alluding to one’s tweets.
“To subscribe to Twitter and keep your account open is to waive your right to privacy in your tweets. Arranging a meeting or social event using tweets other than direct messages is like inviting strangers into your home or onto your phone line while you talk to your friends.
“Blocking only goes so far, as long as you choose to remain open.”
Of the Guthrie complaint, the judge said that she didn’t distinguish “between valid debate and the right to express wrong views on the one hand, and harassment by repeated tweeting on the other. … Though she testified that Mr. Elliott had a right to give his opinion, she took the position that she could demand that she be excluded from receiving it — which is her right — but also that he had to comply and co-operate, which is not her right.”