On January 22, 2016, the Ontario Court of Justice found a Toronto man, Gregory Alan Elliott, not guilty of criminal harassment. The Court’s decision in R. v. Elliott, 2016 ONCJ 35 is notable for family law practitioners as the first criminal harassment case in Canada involving Twitter.
The events leading up to R. v. Elliott began in 2012, when Stephanie Guthrie met Elliott and considered hiring him to design a poster for an event she was helping to organize. Guthrie ultimately did not hire Elliott. Later that year, the two began to exchange heated comments online on topics including Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and a violent misogynistic video game. Elliott subsequently crossed paths with Heather Reilly through Guthrie’s Twitter account. Elliott and Reilly also exchanged heated comments. Eventually, Guthrie and Reilly complained to the police, claiming that the sheer volume and obsessive nature of Elliott’s tweets left them feeling harassed. Reilly became especially fearful after one of Elliott’s tweets referenced a particular bar while she was there with friends.
Pursuant to section 264 of the Criminal Code, R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46, persons are prohibited from knowingly or recklessly harassing another person through conduct that causes that person to reasonably fear for his or her safety. Finding this criteria had not been satisfied in the case before it, the Ontario Court of Justice concluded that the Crown had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Elliott knew he was harassing Reilly and Guthrie and that the women were reasonably fearful from that harassment. Judge Brent Knazan noted in his 80-page ruling that Elliott’s tweets contained nothing of a violent or sexual nature and there was no indication that he intended to hurt the women. Although Knazan found many of Elliott’s tweets to be vulgar and offensive, the judge recognized that Elliott was largely seeking to explain himself and his political views. In addition, Judge Knazan concluded that Elliott did not know he was harassing Guthrie because she kept responding to Elliott’s tweets despite having blocked his account.
The Court’s decision in R v. Elliott sends a strong message to social media users. It is now clear that a person can be charged with criminal harassment based on offensive tweets. However, in order to secure a conviction, the Crown must establish that the individual knowingly or recklessly harassed another person with his or her tweets and that the other person had reasonable cause to fear for his or her safety in the circumstances. As social media takes an ever-growing role in our day-to-day lives, it will be interesting to see how this case influences family law disputes, especially in instances where bitter relationship breakdowns are discussed on Twitter, Facebook or other new media platforms.
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To read the full decision, click here.