The case against Elliott
Wherein one can be told to cease communication but not be considered a harasser
Yesterday’s biggest news story — in certain sections of the internet — concerned the outcome of a case involving online harassment. While proceedings have been going on for almost two years, the case didn’t get much widespread notice until the defendant was made a “folk hero” by conservative news outlets. One of them even held an eight-hour-long live stream as a way to raise money for the defendant’s legal fees.
We here at Amala know that not everyone has the time to read the 80+ page decision handed down by the judge. So we read it for you!
What’s this case about?
Primarily, whether or not a man, Gregory Elliott, did harass two women via the social media website known as Twitter.
It’s complicated. The women were harassed, but the judge did not feel that the evidence provided gave support for their harassment to be reasonable.
What does that mean? Like, they lied about it?
Not at all. The women — and the judge agrees on this — were harassed. They felt harassed, their mindset and requests to be left alone reflected their harassment, and the volume of tweets sent by Elliott after these requests was substantial enough for the recipients to feel harassed.
The judge even commented in his decision more than once that Stephanie Guthrie, one of the complainants, was credible. He gave no reason to distrust her.
But someone told me she lied!
Well that someone was probably speaking in a broad sense with the implication that ‘all women lie’ so I wouldn’t trust them. The only thing that could be possibly attributed to Guthrie as a lie involves someone on Twitter with whom Elliott flirted.
Tweets presented as evidence in the trial included some from September 2012 involving the Twitter handle ‘liverr’. Elliott had been flirting with this person for an undisclosed period of time, and at some point the person behind the handle claimed to be thirteen years of age.
Both of the complainants in this case, Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly, retweeted accusations that Elliott had been flirting with a minor based on these tweets. As it turns out, the person behind the handle had lied about being thirteen, so these accusations were ultimately false.
The judgement, however, doesn’t delve into the relation of this ‘liverr’ to the complainants. Based on the information presented in the trial — or at least that which the judge felt important enough to comment on in 80 pages, neither Guthrie nor Reilly instructed this ‘liverr’ to pretend to be underaged and flirt with Elliott. Of course, the judge also doesn’t comment on whether Elliott believed ‘liverr’ to be underage while engaging in the flirting.
Actually, there is one thing Guthrie lied about:
Okay. Back up a second. Accusations of flirting with minors and now there’s two women involved? Where did these people find each other?
Guthrie is an activist in Toronto, who tweeted about needing a graphic designer for a logo and a poster. Elliott responded and they met over dinner.
That’s about the last time they were nice to each other. As the judge put it:
So what, did she ask him to do it for free or something?
No, but I like your referential joke regarding the plight of a freelancer!
Elliott offered to show her some designs he had in his car. But he was allegedly kind of a creeper in doing so, leaning over the table and inviting her to his car repeatedly. He also put forth several offers to drive her home even though she continued to decline.
As for the work, he offered to do it for free. Guthrie ended up going with a different designer.
A bad dinner date. That’s where this started.
Indeed! And then it was proceeded by some emails, some more offers for rides from Elliott, and Anita Sarkeesian!
Elliott and Guthrie had some passive aggressive emails exchanged when she told Elliott she’d found another designer. First, she offered a competition to see which design she might like more. Elliot took issue with this.
The next offer was to have the other designer handle the logo and Elliot handle the poster. He didn’t like this option, either. Eventually, Guthrie advised Elliot that she’d be going with the other designer but appreciated his interest and effort.
I’ll let our judge give his hot take for the segue into the next event.
Their civil-but-rocky relationship mimicked their emails this far, with the only real kerfuffle being Elliott using an insult relating to femininity when describing a reporter. But when Elliott found out Guthrie was laid up in a cast, the fractures (if you’ll excuse the expression) grew. He continued to proposition her, offering rides and alcohol until she mentioned she had a boyfriend. Even the judge could feel his thirst:
Elliot’s propositioning becomes a recurring theme throughout the evidence in this trial. His attempts at the business dinner with Guthrie somewhat set the tone of their future relationship.
He also propositioned a woman unrelated to Guthrie or Reilly, who tried to civilly criticize him at times for his behavior. Elliott took offense.
You’ll see more of this as the story unfolds.
But what about Anita?
Oh yeah! So. Anita.
Remember that time when some guy made a game where you could simulate a physical assault against Anita Sarkeesian? For obvious reasons, Guthrie didn’t quite like it. She did quite a bit of tweeting and coverage on reactions to the game, which Elliott took issue with. He accused her of trying to exact revenge on the creator of the game, while she stated her purpose was to make sure people associating with the creator knew of the horrible game he made in his spare time.
Whether there’s a real difference between these two views is up to you. The judge didn’t feel any lines were crossed, though it’s difficult to accept anyone could describe a Twitter debate in this way:
Guthrie blocked Elliott shortly after this, while some of her friends felt it was worth continuing. The debate started to bring Elliott’s true character to light:
Alright, she blocked him. Why was there a case about that?
Twitter’s block function isn’t all that useful. It only affects an account that’s signed in, and you’ll still get notifications when you’re mentioned by that user. (Edit: It’s been noted by one reader that you stop receiving notifications from people you’ve blocked. In the author’s experience, this hasn’t always held true; some tweets from them still come through when your handle is included. This may be a bug and not universally true.) Only recently did Twitter introduce the mute function so a blocked user (or just someone you were tired of seeing updates from) couldn’t keep spamming your notifications.
And really, if the mute function was around when these events happened, it seems almost certain this is where the story would end.
What do you mean?
The crux of Guthrie’s harassment claim was the mass of tweets Elliott continued to send after being blocked. Sometimes they were sent directly to her, sometimes they were seen because he replied to one of her friends while her username was tagged; mostly, though, his method of continuing contact with her was to use key hashtags that she relied on with her activist work. She referred to it as “trolling the hashtag.”
Had the mute function been available at this time, his trolling would’ve been nearly ineffective.
Trolled the hashtag. Like, putting butts and bad jokes in it?
Camping would’ve been a better description. He’d tweet about her, things she said, and conversations she was having. He would also try to join in on conversations she was having with her friends. All he’d have to do to see her tweets was keep a separate window open for her feed, whether in private mode or with it signed out. Then he could just reply to one of her friends to join in or use the hashtags to address her, since he couldn’t reply to her tweets themselves.
Here’s one example:
After awhile, Guthrie got a little tired of putting up with him. She had talked with some friends and wanted to make sure his antics were known to as many people as possible. It turned out that Elliott already had a bit of a reputation in the scene.
Elliott took this as a campaign intended to sully his character. The number of tweets he sent to Guthrie or people associated with her kept increasing as more individuals were clued in on the situation. The civil discussion noted earlier in the case was completely eroded by this point.
Alright but this still seems like just another day on the internet.
True, and what that says about the state of the internet is something we’ve touched on before. While the majority of tweets relevant to this case come from Elliott, Guthrie would engage in the occasional subtweeting.
And that is…?
The act of tweeting about someone without naming them or tagging them. There were a few times where Elliott’s trolling resulted in her seeing information presented about her, and she would tweet corrections to this information without mentioning him, tagging him, or using any hashtags he was trolling. Elliott’s obsession with her becomes apparent here because he replied to some of those tweets.
But what makes this worthy of going to court?
Guthrie told him to stop. Several times, actually. She had ceased any named or tagged reference to him and disengaged him, except to tell him to stop contacting her, and one tweet where someone asked who she was referencing and she told the person, “Gregory A Elliott.”
Almost a month after her last request that he cease contact, he was still tweeting in a hashtag he knew she used frequently and monitored, and sending tweets which contained her handle. A couple of these tweets, in Guthrie’s view, indicated that Elliott was refusing to cease contact with her and may try to make direct contact again. Those tweets referenced her very clearly, even if not naming her.
So Guthrie went to the police and filed a report. Elliott was charged with criminal harassment.
But this case involves another woman, Heather Reilly.
What’d she have to do with anything?
Reilly knew Guthrie, though the court documents never signify whether they were friends or just acquaintances. She also used some of the specific hashtags Guthrie used, meaning Elliott and her would cross paths eventually. These hashtags generally had to do with politics in Toronto and other regional topics.
She and Elliott started their Twitter relationship during the same incident where Guthrie had argued with Elliott over his attempted insult towards a reporter. Though, she had less patience for his antics and told him rather quickly to cease contact after she found him to be monitoring her tweets outside of the hashtags.
Elliott responded as you’d expect:
Really, his response here reflects the greater debate of the internet era: Does a right to speech matter more than a right to not be spoken to? The judge’s opinion throughout his writing is that any tweets Elliott made — regardless of vulgarity, sexual offensiveness, or homophobia — were within his rights due to the public nature of twitter. We’ll touch more on that in a second, though.
K. So what else?
Reilly used Elliott’s response as a warning to others, and the judge isn’t entirely clear on what happens when you put a dot before an @.
She also requested, again, that he leave her alone.
He called her ass fat.
Yep. He actually did that more than once.
He really took great issue with the concept of someone not wanting to hear him. He considered both of these women to be ‘fascist feminists,’ enough to make it into a hashtag. He also, though at separate times, accused each of them of trying to control or censor Twitter by asking him to stop replying to them.
Weeks of Elliott in her mentions (dibs on the song name) led her to essentially quote tweet a few of his tweets to criticize him. And then to ask him to stop replying yet again. He still kept going.
And continued on until September 10, with her occasionally quoting his tweets with a .@ and again telling him to leave her alone or stop using certain activist hastags.
What happened on September 10?
Reilly was out at a bar with some friends. Some of her friends had tweeted about the bar they were at. Elliott tweeted that there was a lot of ‘ugly’ in that bar that night. Reilly isn’t sure how she was notified of his tweet, but seeing it concerned her and she started searching the bar to make sure he wasn’t there.
He wasn’t, luckily. But it still left her feeling uneasy, as though he may begin escalating his obsession into something offline.
So she filed a complaint with Twitter, and Twitter referred her to the police since nothing he had done was in violation of their Terms of Service.
It was about a month after this when the incident with ‘liverr’ happened. Reilly tweeted, though not directly, about Elliott hitting on a teenager, and Elliott responded by sending two tweets to her. She then retweeted some things about him and told him directly that he was ‘fucked up.’
On November 21, she went to the police to file harassment charges against him and that was that.
He harassed these women, right? I mean, he was told to go away but kept coming back.
Yeah. Law’s tricky like that.
So basically, the requirements for these charges to stick weren’t met 100%.
The first requirement is repeated communication. Did Elliott engage in repeated communication? For both women, the judge found that Elliott’s communication with them fit the standards for passing this requirement; he tweeted directly at them enough and, in Guthrie’s case, knew his tweets would reach her even after the block.
The second requirement is whether or not they were harassed.
Now, being harassed can be both an action you receive and a state of mind.
Think of it like the word ‘cold.’ You can be cold to someone, such as ignoring them, and you can be cold, such as standing outside in a blizzard.
In this case, the judge agrees that both women were harassed. That is, both women felt strained or worried during these events.
The third requirement is whether or not Elliott was aware that they were harassed.
This one is even trickier. The judge found that Elliott did not know Guthrie was harassed because of his actions.
But she blocked him! She told him to screw off!
She did. But, well…the judge argues that Elliott utilized his right to reply, and that he was allowed to defend himself and express his views on how Twitter should be used, even if he was doing so while referencing Guthrie and using hashtags he knew she relied on.
You’re shitting me.
One of the key points of this case, in the judge’s view at least, concerned the nature of hashtags.
And any act taken to restrict one’s use of hashtags is, in the judge’s view, not consistent with freedom of expression in democratic societies.
By this metric, he concludes that Elliott’s tweets contained nothing criminal or threatening, and so were a justifiable use of public hashtags and Twitter as a whole. In fact, it is because of her occasionally putting out tweets referencing or tagging Elliott that the judge feels Elliott could not know, beyond reasonable doubt, that he was causing Guthrie to be harassed.
Basically: She didn’t explicitly tell him that she felt harassed by him and blocking does not constitute notification of harassment. Even though she told him to stop, said that she felt creeped out by him, and commented on him harassing other women.
It kinda is.
So what about Reilly?
Elliott was aware that she felt harassed, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Wait wait wait…didn’t Guthrie tell him to leave her alone?
She did. She told him she was done with him, then to stop contacting her, and claimed he committed serial harassment. The judge did not feel her tweet about serial harassment, which was sent to Elliott directly, meant or implied that he committed serial harassment.
And the judge thinks he couldn’t know she was harassed.
Yep. One important distinction seems to be the language used by Elliott. For Guthrie, he was at times hostile but not sexual and vulgar. His tweets to Reilly included slurs and comments on her ass. Judge felt that Elliott had no excuse to believe he hadn’t harassed her with that language after being told to leave her alone.
Alright. Whatever. What’s the next one?
Recklessness. Since he had knowledge of harassing Reilly, this requirement isn’t needed. With Guthrie, the judge decided Elliott was operating recklessly by continuing to tweet at her and in hashtags he knew she used.
But he said hashtags are public and Elliott could use them.
He did. He considers this point both relevant and moo.
While Elliott was within his rights to use hashtags which he knew would ensure his tweets were seen by Guthrie, he operated knowing there was a risk she would be harassed by tweets which tagged or referenced her. The judge’s opinion is that Elliott’s acceptance of this risk is independent of whether or not the judge believes Elliott’s tweets would qualify as harassment.
So, he knew she might feel harassed, but banked his chances on a court ruling that he didn’t engage in harassment. By accepting that risk, he was reckless.
Ok. I think I understand. Anything else?
The next one is whether or not these women feared for their safety.
Guthrie did. Reilly didn’t.
Guthrie’s fear came from the increasing frequency and accusations of conspiracy coming from Elliott. She also knew he was knowledgable about the area in which she lived. She testified that all of this made her fear Elliott could be at danger of escalation.
But Reilly never testified to being fearful. The judge, in his writing, commended her for appearing authentic and not attempting to testify with a goal of conviction. That’s not to say he believed Guthrie exaggerated her fear to that agenda; he gives similar compliments to how Guthrie testified.
It just happens to be that Reilly never mentioned or implied any fear. She stated she was frustrated, and that was the reason she went to the police after seeing a press release about Guthrie contacting them. And it’s unlikely the judge would’ve felt she was fearful even if she testified as such. He makes sure to note in his writing that Reilly continued to retweet others who attacked Elliot’s character, something he feels would not be done by someone in a fearful state of mind.
Lastly, we come to whether the feelings of fear and harassment were reasonable.
This is a part of the ruling that really has polarizing potential, as it attempts to place an objective view on the victim’s state of mind. In his writing, the judge makes effort to comment on the obvious difficulties arising from a male judge understanding the unique challenges faced by women. He tries to view their state of mind through the lens of certain fears that affect women disproportionately due to culture, society, and the environment they’re in. These include the higher chances of being sexually assaulted, sexually accosted, sexually harassed, blamed for speaking up; basically everything that feminists have been working for decades to change in society at large.
And his decision is tough.
Guthrie being fearful was not deemed reasonable. The crux of this decision relies on the majority of Elliott’s tweets being a continued response to allegations Guthrie had either stated or retweeted about him. The judge finds that it is unreasonable for Guthrie to believe she could tweet about topics and expect to not see his tweets about that topic.
Further, the judge feels she had lead the charge to make people aware of Elliott’s harassment and poor character. Elliott continuing to tweet at and about her after being told to stop could justify a reasonable fear that he would be capable of psychological or physical harm, if not for her being seen as the leader of the awareness campaign. The right to reply that the judge has relied on for much of this decision comes into play here; Elliott had a right to reply to people involved in attacks on his character, regardless of whether the attacks were true or false, as long as they were not threatening or sexual.
That’s a little troubling.
Indeed. The implication is that someone is allowed to stalk and harass you, while you have no reason to be fearful if you speak publicly about this harassment and stalking. This also means that speaking publicly to warn others of a dangerous individual removes your ability to be reasonably fearful. Not until that individual threatens you or takes action is it deemed reasonable to fear them.
It almost seems to give a pass to enablers, those with large followings on social media like celebrities or notable persons. There are quite a few who use their place on the stage to direct their audience towards someone they don’t like.
Of course, the judge feels Guthrie did this same thing to the creator of the Anita game. At the time, Guthrie tweeted that she wondered of she should sic the internet on the creator. The fact that she used the word ‘sic’ is what he says creates a debate regarding her actions, one which Elliott had a right to participate in.
So it’s a bit murky.
Yeah. As has been noted repeatedly, the judge is very adamant that Twitter is an open, public place regardless of expectations.
What about Reilly?
She didn’t express fear, and the judge felt that even if she had been fearful due to the incident at the bar, it wouldn’t have been reasonable. Again, this comes back to the belief that Twitter is not a place with an expectation of privacy. Elliott tweeting about her location came from her friends tweeting about their location. The judge believes any fear in that situation is based on the expectation that the tweets from Reilly’s friends are private for not being directed towards Elliott. He does not believe non-direct tweets can be reasonably expected to be private.
And all of this together means…
Elliott was cleared of all charges, including the charge of breaking a peace bond that was set prior to this case. Unfortunately, a brief search hasn’t given any information on why he had a peace bond to begin with.
Really, this is an interesting case for many reasons. One is the introduction of Twitter terms and expressions into the legal world. Another is the judge’s occasional snark on the ability to communicate in a meaningful manner on Twitter.
But mainly, what makes it interesting is the response. Those who have supported Elliott immediately claimed that anyone who disagreed with the ruling must have wanted to see him in jail. Information has come out that two women spoke to a reporter, alleging they were physically abused by Elliott prior to this case. Certain people notorious for harassment have already viewed the ruling as a free pass to harass.
A Twitter search for Guthrie’s tag shows that she’s received no shortage of hate since the verdict. She’s also set her account to private, as would be expected. The same is true on both fronts for Reilly’s tag. A positive note is that some people have attempted to make their feed a little brighter by tweeting pictures of cute kitties at them.
It’s also worth noting that their harasser had his legal fees funded by GamerGate. That, of course, makes this case even more worrisome: