In a highly publicized decision read in court this past Friday, Gregory Alan Elliott was found not guilty of criminal harassment on Twitter. The Toronto man was cleared of two charges of criminal harassment arising from his Twitter interactions with two Toronto women’s rights activists, Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly. The decision by Justice Brent Knazan, believed to be among the first of its kind in Canada, provided an analysis on the nature of Twitter and freedom of expression,.
In November of 2012, Mr. Elliott was arrested and charged with two counts of criminal harassment over his online interactions with the two women. Although they had both blocked Mr. Elliott on the site in August of that year, he continued to mention them in other tweets or comment on events or subjects they were discussing online. Ms. Guthrie and Ms. Reilly told police they believed he continued to track their movements and they feared for their safety.
Although Justice Knazan believed that the women may have felt harassed, he found that there was no proof that Mr. Elliott knew they felt that way. The language of Mr. Elliott’s tweets did not include explicitly threatening language. Freedom of expression is a Charter right, and people must tolerate the annoyance of opposing views as part of that right. Justice Knazan noted that although Mr. Elliott’s tweets were mean, crass and insulting, the Crown was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a real threat of violence. Both women may have actually feared Elliott, but Justice Knazan felt there was not enough proof that he had the potential to become violent or that he was aware of their sentiments.
This decision is significant because it makes clear that freedom of speech rights protect even tweets or communications that may annoy or offend us. The decision also offers guidelines on how future cases involving Twitter can be approached.
If you have questions about criminal harassment or freedom of speech and would like to speak to an experienced criminal defence lawyer, please contact Affleck & Barrison online or at 905-404-1947.
In June 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that police are not entitled to warrantless access to online subscriber info. In the unanimous decision, the Court held that police must obtain a judge’s authorization in order to access customer information linked to online activities (R v Spencer). As a result, telecommunications service providers now demand court approval for most requests from law enforcement authorities for basic identifying information. This process now requires that police file time-consuming paperwork which has reduced the number of cases that can be pursued by police.
Earlier this week, at a security conference in Ottawa, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said police need warrantless access to Internet subscriber information to keep pace with child predators and other online criminal activity. He stated that it was time Canadians had a public conversation about how to prevent online exploitation. It’s an old argument: police always want fewer obstacles between their work and the people they pursue. But experts warn that expanding voluntary and warrantless disclosure raises serious constitutional questions.
Commissioner Paulson’s request for a public conversation is odd, given that the debate has already been held. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision last year, two parliamentary committees examined this issue. There was a great deal of editorial debate in the press about privacy concern and significant public outcry about former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plans to increasing electronic surveillance.
According to the commissioner, children are being “hurt at a pace and frequency that is alarming.” Most people would agree that police should certainly be working to reduce the the exploitation of children online. However, critics feel that the RCMP is using this issue as a scare tactic designed to frighten people into giving up their privacy so the RCMP can have greater powers of surveillance over Canada’s citizens. Warrants are a critical safeguard that ensure that innocent Canadians are not targeted and their rights are not infringed. It is the responsibility of police to maintain law and order, online and in real life, but that doesn’t mean that they should have limitless power. Removing the privacy safeguards of millions of Canadians because the police claim new procedure takes too long does not solve the problem.
If you have questions about your online privacy or any other criminal defence matter, please contact the lawyers at Affleck & Barrison online or at 905-404-1947.