dinner with friends just reminded me that one of the reasons I started the last post (Nancy Leong on cyber harassment, & etc). was to provide context for this current Toronto trial. So….
The Crown is currently trying to convict Gregory Elliott on three charges of criminal harassment (and one of breaching a peace bond) based on Twitter activity. The complainants are three women including Toronto feminist activist Steph Guthrie. This Toronto Star report from last Thursday notes some of the context, including Guthrie’s online activism against an Ontario man who created a game in which players could beat up and bloody an image of Anita Sarkeesian (media critic who blogs at Feminist Frequency), apprently in reaction to Sarkeesian’s kickstarter campaign to fund a series of videos about sexist tropes in video games. (You can go to Sarkeesian’s blog to find out more about her experience, or perhaps read this article by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman which reproduces some of the stuff Sarkeesian had to deal with – including screenshots of the game described above).
Here is a link to section 264 (Criminal Harassment) of the Criminal Code of Canada, which, inter alia, requires
264. (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
(b) repeatedly communicating with, either directly or indirectly, the other person or anyone known to them;
In this case (which may be the first Canadian twitter criminal harassment trial), the police investigator has apparently testified that there were no tweets from the defendant threatening to harm the women (note that is NOT a requirement of the offence), although it has been reported that the women feared for their safety. Guthrie, at least, has received such threats in the past from others, as this newspaper report from the summer of 2012 (when the Sarkeesian kickstarter campaign and backlash were happening) describes:
“I can be anywhere, anytime, and I can kill you in over seven hundred ways,” one tweet to Guthrie said…, soon to be matched with even cruder and more violent tweets from other users.
Guthrie told the reporter “I don’t think any of these people are going to come to my house and kill me,” ….“The ability to be anonymous on Twitter facilitates really abusive comments.” (here). She also tweeted this, of her decision to go to the police:
In anticipation of any "you just did this to prove a point" criticisms, I did this bc he was making me feel unsafe/miserable. Worth noting.
— Steph Guthrie (@amirightfolks) November 21, 2012
The question of what online harassment “means” is interesting doctrinally and otherwise. Jim Pagels writes in Slate that Twitter (death) threats should be ignored because they are meaningless. Hess’s piece takes that on (see below for her response). Leong notes ignoring harassment can be one possible, starting, strategy but that it will not always work. Again, please note that criminal harassment does not require either death threats or threats to harm.
Incidentally, news of this Toronto trial comes the same week as two people were convicted under section 127 of the UK Communications Act 2003 of sending menacing tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez, who was campaigning against the removal of Elizabeth Fry from the £10 note. The Director of Public Prosecutions in the UK has produced a set of guidelines for “Prosecutions involving the use of social media communications”, in case you’re interested, here.
Leong’s ethics complaint raises, for me at least, very different questions than the criminal prosecutions do, but the underlying activities complained of are clearly very similar in their method and tone. Thinking through which responses can be both appropriate and effective will no doubt continue even as legislators write new law, prosecutors and individuals try to use whatever law they find to address problems they face, and corporations wonder whether they are exposed by providing platforms for these activities.
It is interesting that the threats of violence that we’re hearing about in these cases tend to be – but are not always – threats of (for lack of a better phrase) “stranger violence,” rather than intimate violence (a phrase which describes so much of the physical and sexual violence experienced by women in our society – violence and/or threats perpetrated by men with whom one has or has had an intimate relationship). I am not drawing a conclusion from that observation or heading in any particular direction, but rather just observing something about the places violence may be. It feels, sometimes, impossible to be as wary as we are apparently meant to be while having an actual life. It just cannot take too long before all the warnings to be vigilant fade into a constant background buzz and a generalized heightened awareness (or perhaps anxiety), which roars back to the forefront at particular moments.
Here is what Amanda Hess says in response to the claim that women should ignore online harassment because it does not represent a real threat of physical violence:
But no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment—and the sheer volume of it—has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages. I’ve spent countless hours over the past four years logging the online activity of one particularly committed cyberstalker, just in case. And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day. (source)
What you fail to understand is that the use of hate speech, threats and bullying to terrify and intimidate people into silence or away from certain topics is a far bigger threat to free speech than any legal sanction.
Imagine this is not the internet but a public square. One woman stands on a soapbox and expresses an idea. She is instantly surrounded by an army of 5,000 angry people yelling the worst kind of abuse at her in an attempt to shut her up. Yes, there’s a free speech issue there. But not the one you think. (quoted here)
Well – what do you think? A timely paper topic for students I suppose.
[this post does not take on the issue of cyberbullying which is interestingly often given a slightly different treatment, focused more on teen behaviours, nor does it look at the question of “revenge porn” – both clearly connected to the frames provided by Leong (harassment & defamation, ethics) and Hess (criminal harassment, threats). I see the connection – and i wonder about how the differences are defined – but leave it for another day]
As always, happy for cites to good legal academic articles to appear in the comments below or otherwise to me for posting.