Free speech debates can often get tiresome online (for fairly obvious reasons), but it continues to astound me how people seem to think that there should be some sort of obvious exception to free speech rights for speech they don't like
-- and that there won't be any unintended or dangerous consequences from simply outlawing the speech that they dislike. To me, that
belief is dangerous, though obviously people should be allowed to make their arguments for it. Up in Canada -- where they don't have a First Amendment like we do here in the states -- there's a fascinating and very troubling case happening that shows the dangerous path that you go down when you start saying things like "offensive speech" should be illegal. The determination of "offensive" is incredibly subjective.
The case here appears to be over a Twitter spat
between a few individuals, who clearly don't much like each other. That said, the spat appears to be not dissimilar from the many, many Twitter spats that happen each and every day. I'm pretty sure I've had Twitter debates as bad, if not worse, than what happened here, and the idea that such a debate could lead to possible criminal charges
and jail time
is fundamentally crazy.
And the deeper you dig into the details, the more and more bizarre the case itself gets.
There are three main players: Greg Elliott, who is facing the harassment charges. Then there's Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly, who both brought the charges (with a third woman who is no longer involved). The story started in 2012 when someone else entirely, Bendilin Spurr, created a ridiculous distasteful game that allowed players to punch out a well-known woman (who I'm not even going to bother naming here, because, honestly, the mere mention of this person's name automatically makes comments divide into angry warring factions where reasoned debate disappears -- and I ask folks, before commenting, to think carefully about if it's worth going down that ridiculous rabbit hole -- on any side). Given that parenthetical notation I just had to make, not surprisingly, some people got quite upset about this very stupid game. Among the people angry about the game was Guthrie, who apparently went on Twitter and got people riled up
about all of this:
Guthrie testified earlier at this trial, which has been on and off since January, that she asked the Twittersphere what to do.
“Should I sic the Internet on him?” she asked, and it was almost rhetorical, so swift and predictable was the resounding reply.
So she Tweeted “to prospective Sault Ste. Marie employers” and the local newspaper a link to a story about the game, asked Spurr “Do you punch women in the face IRL (in real life) or just on the Internet?” and asked her Twitter followers to retweet the whole shebang.
Some people supported Guthrie, others did not and responded angrily, including threats of bodily harm and all sorts of other crazy vitriol. Because internet. And immaturity. From the sound of it, many of the responses to Guthrie were, indeed, horrifying and disturbing.
Now that brings us to Greg Elliott. He knew Guthrie a bit (and not just online), and he disagreed with Guthrie's apparent plan to shame Spurr, and so he created what appears to have been something of a counter campaign to speak out against Guthrie's campaign.
Elliott’s contribution to this dialogue was to remark, mildly in the circumstances and fairly I thought, that the online attack led by Guthrie and friends upon Spurr “was every bit as vicious as the face-punch game,” and to point out that since Spurr had only 11 followers at the time, Guthrie’s efforts could backfire and draw even more attention to his wretched video game.
Elliott was also concerned about the real-world effects on a 24-year-old, or, as he wrote at the time, “A guy makes a face-punch game which offends you and you want him destroyed?”
Twitter debate then ensued, and it may have gone somewhat overboard in total volume of tweets
, but everyone appears to agree that at no point did it descend into threats from Elliott to Guthrie. Just very vocal disagreement.
So let's pause here, for a second, and recount what happened:
- Spurr, angry about certain person, creates ridiculous "game" allowing people to punch out said person. This seems incredibly immature, but is an expression of speech.
- Guthrie, reasonably upset about this game, convenes people online to speak out against Spurr and to try to limit his chances for future employment. In other words, counter speech. Again, some might argue (as happened in point 3 below) that deciding to ruin someone's life because they created a stupid immature game is going a bit far, but this is still speech and counter speech.
- Elliott challenges the soundness of such a broad attack on Spurr, noting that online vigilantism can go too far, and could backfire (giving silly immature game more attention). Counter speech to the counter speech that isn't defending the stupidity of the original game. They (and others) begin to debate on Twitter and that debate gets ugly and ridiculously childish at points but at no point resorts to any sort of threats.
At this point, all of this seems perfectly reasonable. People are disagreeing online, and speech and counter speech is happening. There are all sorts of things on the side that people can be concerned about (the idea to create such a stupid game in the first place, the power of mob justice to overreact, the insults, the more insults, etc.). But, again, this is all just your standard everyday internet argument.
And yet... somehow out of all of this: Guthrie (and others) end up charging Elliott
with harassment. And then there's Reilly. Apparently in the midst of all this, she got engaged in the debate
which ended up like so many debates on Twitter:
“@greg_a_elliott Please do me a favour & not reply to my posts. You don’t follow me- were you creeping the #TOpoli tag to find my tweet?” she tweeted on Aug. 9, 2012.
“.@ladysnarksalot how’d you feel if I was so delusional to ask you to not retweet me? You want “control” use your email, not Twitter. #TOpoli,” @greg_a_elliott replied, after suggesting that Reilly didn’t understand the point of Twitter.
The exchanges became increasingly hostile that month, with @greg_a_elliott tweeting that Reilly was a “hateful b–tch” and accusing her and other women he dubbed “#fascistfeminists” of ganging up on him, Reilly said.
He also posted tweets like “Heather’s fat ass gets fatter” with the #topoli hashtag but without mentioning her Twitter handle in the tweet (known as sub-tweeting), the court heard. Sub-tweeting meeting the other Twitter user mentioned won’t be automatically notified that he or she is being discussed.
It appears that most of Elliott's tweets are still online. Guthrie's and Reilly's are now private. You can see the start
here, though there are many examples of friendly tweets between Elliott and Guthrie prior to this happening. Amazingly, with a little searching online, it is possible to find a spreadsheet cataloging all the tweets
between the two of them. And, again, at times the insults start flying, but at no time does it appear to be threatening. Hell, it's hard to see how it's harassing. It's people expressing opinions (often angrily).
In that list you can see that the angry tweets start on July 7th of 2012 and then continue for a few months. Guthrie appears to ask Elliott to "stop contacting" her (and others asked him to do so as well) and even though they blocked him via Twitter's block feature, he sent a few more tweets their way, responding to some of the things they said. And, on the basis of that, they brought the harassment claims.
Elliott's lawyer has pointed out that it certainly appears that a bunch of Guthrie's friends were just as open to verbally sparring with Elliott -- and if his statements were somehow criminal harassment, then theirs should be as well.
A key point in all of this is that, apparently, the Canadian law in question requires the victims to "reasonably, in all the circumstances, to fear for their safety." That seems like a problematic standard for a variety of reasons, but it's very difficult to see how the bar was met here. As the original link above notes:
Yet Guthrie and Reilly didn’t behave as though they were remotely frightened or intimidated: They convened a meeting of friends to discuss how Elliott should be publicly shamed; they bombarded their followers with furious tweets and retweets about him (including a grotesque suggestion from someone pretending she was a 13-year-old that he was a pedophile); they could and did dish it out.
“They were not vulnerable,” Murphy said once. “They are very accomplished, politically savvy women. If they can’t handle being mentioned in the tail end of a political discussion (on Twitter), then they’re in the wrong business.”
As Elliott's lawyer noted, this is all "a high school spat, except it’s adults on the Internet," and the idea that a court should get involved and that there may be jail time at the end is flat out ridiculous.
It's stories like this that should freak people out about the belief that it's easy to ban "offensive" speech online. What one person takes offense to could be seen as totally reasonable by many others. In this case, it appears that there was a spat and everyone said and did some immature things, but to argue that one side is somehow guilty of a criminal offense over a Twitter spat is flat out crazy.