So apparently Canada isn’t completely insane.
To elaborate, Gregory Alan Elliott was found not guilty of harassment in the case brought against him over what was effectively a protracted argument on Twitter.
To bring you up to speed if necessary: A shit-stirring programmer made a quick online flash game where you got to punch a woman, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, in the face. It’s childish, but it’s hardly unique. A Toronto feminist attempted to organize a Twitter mob to enact a little digital frontier justice on the perpetrator, Gregory Alan Elliott disagreed, and things escalated from there.
Here’s the thing.
I don’t give a shit if you’re offended by something I write. If I’m vulgar, vile even, if I call into question fundamentally held beliefs, or if I simply mock the daylights out of things you consider sacred. Because that’s not harassment; it’s me expressing my opinion.
Now, if I called for a mob of my followers (HAH, as if such a thing existed) to bombard you with messages, sent threatening letters or tweets of my own, worked through puppet accounts all towards the end of generating as much misery in your life as possible? Yes, that would be considered harassment.
But Gregory Alan Elliott did none of those things. He used Twitter the way it was intended to be used, and Twitter itself found nothing actionable in the messages he exchanged with the plaintiffs.
So when he refused to shut up, when he continued to disagree with them, when he intruded into their safe spaces by not just going away, they sicced the law on him.
Sure, he might be a dick, and prone to using vulgar, homophobic language. Sure, maybe he needs to learn when to be the better man, let things go and permit people to talk about him behind their Twitter blocks. People talking about you behind your back can be enormously frustrating, especially when they’re doing in in a place where you can see them doing it if you so choose, but at the same time you have to accept that they’re doing it because they’re petty assholes and there’s probably nothing you can do to fix that.
God knows it took me years to learn that much, and I don’t even use Twitter.
But to say that a conviction for Greg Elliott would have had chilling effects on free speech in Canada is rather like saying that Nunavut gets a little cold in January.
The judge in this case walked a careful line in his ruling, in effect siding with both parties and rejecting Elliott’s assertion that the plaintiffs were abusing the law and knowingly perjuring themselves to give the impression that they genuinely feared for their safety, while also acknowledging that none of Elliott’s tweets could be considered physically or sexually threatening.
It’s playing the game of saying “Yes, you were afraid, but your fear was not reasonable“, without admitting that there is tremendous incentive for the plaintiffs to just… exaggerate things a touch, embellish here and there, and if you do it right and the law sides with you, that pesky asshole you’re arguing with will get put away, and who cares if the ruling sets a precedent that could one day be used against me so long as I get what I want right now.
There’s a terrible shortsightedness in any effort to use the law in silencing dissent.
While I don’t personally know any of the people involved, since I have little to do with the goings-on in America’s Hat, I expect my opinion on the motivations of the plaintiffs is pretty clear. To be utterly explicit: I think they tried to use the law to hurt someone they didn’t like. And that sickens me.
It’s a glorified, protracted, three-year-long, career-destroying version of swatting, a way to silence critics now and in the future, of putting fear into anyone with the temerity to challenge you or your ideology, and it is the sort of behavior that should land one in jail.
Because Greg Elliott didn’t win anything. He was barred from using the internet for three years, lost his job, is in crippling debt, and despite the fact that he was found not guilty, he has already been punished severely by the process of the trial itself.
But hey, at least the court said that you can’t reasonably feel threatened by someone who isn’t threatening you.