Dealing With Online Stalking, As A Lawyer And A Victim
By Caitlin Murphy
If you’ve spent any amount of time on the Internet, at least in social justice spaces, you know that simply being a woman — and especially a young woman, a woman of color, or a trans woman — is enough to attract vicious bile, threats, and personal attacks. If this concerted mass effort to stalk, abuse, and intimidate women were taking place offline, we’d expect at least some arrests. But online harassment tends to go unpunished, even on the very rare occasions when a case makes it to court. Police and judges are unequipped to understand online abuse, or simply don’t want to.
Human rights lawyer Heather Parker is trying to change all that.
Parker, a friend and colleague of mine, is also a police advisor and advocate, campaigner, and grassroots organizer for human rights issues. In her career, she has dealt with health care, domestic violence, stalking, poverty, mental health concerns, and sex worker’s rights.
She has also herself been subject to prolonged harassment and stalking on Twitter. Which means she’s experienced abuse from both sides: as the lawyer, and as the victim. (Please be aware that this piece will outline harassment, stalking, and violent threats.)
Parker has been dealing with repeated harassment by a Mr. Green since March of 2013. After a short exchange on Twitter, he barraged her with 40 messages, at which point she blocked him. He then created multiple accounts — by Parker’s count, 29 more on Twitter and four on Facebook, using numerous pseudonyms that he’s used to contact her through her website — in order to continue to harass her. Two months later, in May, he used her contact page to send her an explicit sexual message, at which point she called the police.
The officer who responded sat on her couch, looked through everything, and in Parker’s words, “literally said, ‘well, it’s not as if he’s threatened to rape you or chop you up into little bits yet.’” He then suggested she send a cease and desist letter, which she did immediately. Mr. Green responded with a diatribe refusing to stop his harassment, referencing the Second Amendment.
Parker was lucky enough to have a family friend who was able to “call in a favor” and got her in touch with the Arlington County tech crimes unit; they looked over everything and recommended she get an order of protection. She lived in Virginia at the time, and Mr. Green resided in New York, but she was able to secure a preliminary ex parte (meaning in absence of the defendant) order of protection, which should have prevented Mr. Green from contacting her even though he lived in a different jurisdiction.
According to Parker, the New York Police Department initially refused to serve the preliminary order, because it was from out of state. Then they said that “even if they did serve it, they wouldn’t enforce it.” They eventually did serve the order, two weeks after it was issued — but even when they finally did their job, the police actually managed to make things worse. “At that point, they gave Mr. Green my police intake sheet from Arlington County,” says Parker. (NYPD claims that they did not.) “That intake sheet contained my name, home address, email, phone, birth date, and SSN.” Green responded by posting all of this private information publicly on Twitter. At the top of the page is an NYPD fax number.
Due to the complications of Virginia law, Parker had multiple hearings in an attempt to get a final order of protection. Mr. Green did not attend any of these hearings, but he did have a lawyer present at one. That lawyer, says Parker, waved away her concerns: “When confronted with a tweet of [Mr. Green’s] talking about how it was moral and just to bomb abortion clinics (while I worked at Planned Parenthood), [council said] ‘Your honor, it’s not as if he threatened to bomb HER abortion clinic.’” Parker tells me you could have heard “a pin drop” in the courtroom, and that the judge gave the counsel defending Mr. Green a scathing look.
After this ordeal, Parker was granted a “permanent” order of protection — which in Virginia means two years. Despite this, Mr. Green didn’t stop his harassment, and there are therefore warrants for his arrest in Virginia. Because violating an order of protection is a misdemeanor, and Virginia doesn’t extradite for misdemeanors, the warrants have not been served.
According to Parker:
“Mr. Green kept up his harassment, including a death threat, a rape story with me as the victim, posting my SSN etc. multiple times on Twitter . . . I tried reaching out to various law enforcement agencies, not just in Arlington, but in New York, the U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI; no one would really help me. Even Twitter took forever to take the tweets and profile pic with my personal information down. They suspended him, for all of a few hours. When he came back, he reposted it.”
One of the routes Parker took in an attempt to create overall change was supporting and testifying on behalf of bill HB 1902 in Virginia. HB 1902 was a bill that was meant to amend and reenact §§ 18.2–60.3 and 55–225.16 of the Code of Virginia, in relation to stalking and early termination of rental agreements.
In her testimony on behalf of HB 1902, Parker recounted the terrifying experience of being a stalking victim, and how it became worse when she found out he knew where she lived, especially because she didn’t have the savings to break the lease and rent another apartment. He would comment on the “big windows” of her apartment in Arlington, and once texted a former partner of hers about car bombs in Arlington. In her testimony, Parker mentioned that there were numerous warrants for Mr. Green’s arrest; by that point, the order of protection had been violated 59 times. But the local prosecutor didn’t take these infractions seriously — in fact, says Parker, the prosecutor didn’t think Green’s actions constituted stalking. “I explained that if this one prosecutor didn’t think it was [stalking], it was likely that other prosecutors would think the same thing, and that that meant the overall stalking law in VA was unclear.”
I commented that it must be difficult for people who do not know or understand the law in the way Parker does to go through these sorts of proceedings and try to gain justice. “I think that’s what’s made this entire thing that much more difficult for me,” she responded. “Because I do understand the law. I understand how the legal system works. If I can’t obtain relief through the legal system, what hope does the ‘average’ stalking victim have? And that makes me incredibly angry and incredibly sad at the same time.”
Although her testimony was considered some of the best the Criminal Law Committee had heard on the subject, HB 1902 has not moved forward. On February 9, 2015, Parker learned that the bill was referred to the Virginia Housing Commission for further study, and that efforts were being made to reintroduce the bill in the next year and have it sent to the General Laws Committee. The Virginia General Assembly site lists no further action on the bill since that time.
Late in January 2016, Gregory Alan Elliott was found not guilty in the first criminal harassment case in Canada involving Twitter. The women he harassed said that they believed he stalked them via their social media even though they had blocked his account. The judge concluded that he had certainly harassed them, but there was no basis for believing that he actually intended to harm them.
In many of these cases, judges regularly cite a lack of “intent to cause harm.” But the reality is that these threats and words do cause harm. They cause mental harm in the form of depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder in extreme cases. They can harm people’s livelihood, friendships, relationships, and lives. Whether or not the trolls truly intend to hunt you down and do all sorts of violent things to you, the threat alone is enough to cause serious damage.
The most prominent example of this kind of viral online harassment has been GamerGate — the concerted attacks on specific women and gender non-conforming writers and developers in the game industry. Disguised as a quest for “ethics in gaming journalism,” GamerGate, or GG, originally began with the alleged abuser and former partner of Zoe Quinn, developer of Depression Quest, accused her of currying favor with a games journalist by having a tryst with him at a convention. What resulted was an overflow of rage that had been boiling amongst primarily white, cis-gendered males in the gaming community, culminating in the targeted harassment of Quinn and other queer, trans, female, or otherwise “deviant” members of the community. This harassment had been and still is viral, with hordes of trolls treating Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and others as punching bags for everything they’re frustrated with about gaming. Many of the people on the other side of this harassment had to move, lost their jobs, and went into hiding for periods of time. Their lives will never be the same.
Quinn’s experience shows the potential of viral harassment; it shows us how harassment at that volume can not only ruin lives but further break down the ability of our social media networks and justice system to do anything about it.
While Twitter does have a policy against harassment and abuse, for those who experience an extreme volume of abuse, it is difficult to keep up with. As Quinn stated in an address to the UN last summer, it isn’t possible to deal with on an individual, case-by-case, basis; it needs to be addressed on a systemic level.
Eventually, Parker moved to Ohio, where she tells me the law is much more protective of victims and survivors. She obtained a new ex parte order of protection in Ohio just a few days before the order from VA expired. “This [new] order covers mental harm, and it covers him using social media — it explicitly covers it,” she said. Part of the reason for that is because Parker has been trying to make it clear to judges and lawyers how damaging online harassment can be: “I explained that harassment and stalking online can be just as damaging as harassment and stalking offline, sometimes even more so, because you can’t see if the person is watching you, surveilling you. So the mental anguish never stops.”
One of the challenges for officials trying to understand and legislate online harassment is the fact that, for people who aren’t habitual social media users, it can be hard to understand how existing laws, created for the offline world, map onto online behaviors. Most lawyers, judges, and jurors do not use the Internet, and many who bring online harassment cases to court report having to spend large portions of their time trying to describe to their own lawyers, judges, and other cogs in the legal system what (for instance) a hashtag is. Parker has tried to combat some of this confusion by comparing offline public spaces to online public spaces.
One way she’s done this? By directly linking the abusive use of hashtags to harassment in public spaces.
Mr. Green has been using the hashtags that Parker has taken part in (including, ironically, #NSAM2016 for Stalking Awareness Month), flooding them with his own tweets and even harassing other people with them. At Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, which Heather and I both attended, he engaged in such extreme harassment using the convention’s hashtag that it was mentioned in the closing keynote. Hashtag abuse is one of the issues that was raised in the Canadian case against Gregory Alan Elliott, and something Heather believes the courts got wrong.
When pursuing a new order of protection in Ohio this year, Parker tells me, “I encouraged the magistrate to view hashtags as a defined space, no different than, for example, a coffee shop” (she has also written about this elsewhere). “If I have an order of protection, and I go into a coffee shop, my stalker isn’t permitted to go into that coffee shop with me. Even if he doesn’t talk to me, he’s not allowed to be within a certain number of feet of me, so he can’t be in the same space as me. When Mr. Green uses the same hashtags I use . . . it’s his way of letting me know that he’s watching me. It’s like him watching to see which coffee shop I’m going into, and then going into that same coffee shop. He can claim that he’s not talking to me, but he’s still violating the order by virtue of being in the same defined space.”
Parker is working with state-based law enforcement officials to press criminal charges against Mr. Green and is speaking with the FBI about him, as well — “and if those charges move forward, we’ll probably be raising the hashtag issue. In the States. For the first time ever.”
The day after my interview with Parker, Zoe Quinn dropped charges against her former partner, the person who brought about GamerGate in an attempt to continue abusing her. In a long, emotional, and unedited blog post, Quinn said that the justice system ended up harming her further through the years she attempted to seek relief via its complex channels.
When I told Parker about the post, she said, “I wish I knew Zoe, I’d love to talk to her about her experiences with the legal system. I don’t, haven’t, and won’t face a bazillionth of what she went through, but insight into what went ‘wrong’ with her and the legal system would be incredibly useful. I’d like to compare notes, as it were.”
Parker definitely isn’t finished with her ordeal, and coping has been difficult. She told me that throughout her legal travails, she has had to work hard to take care of herself in order to keep moving forward — and it has affected her work and life in extreme ways. Quinn mentioned in her blog post that part of the reason she was dropping charges was because she wasn’t a “good victim” — and though that’s a frustrating thing, it’s something many people seeking justice have to contend with. I can’t say whether Parker is the “good victim” that is needed to set precedent on online harassment. But I will say this: She has the legal background to understand how the courts work, and how to proceed. Beyond that, she’s determined to make the change. It’s what she does for a living.
Progressing anywhere in this conversation, in this reality of online harassment, is more than a challenge; it has proven to be almost impossible, with a legal system that doesn’t understand the workings of the Internet, social media networks that are ineffective at fixing the problem, and the burden of “good victimhood” upon those who try to make change. But if anyone can make a difference in this, it will be Heather Parker.
Lead image: flickr/Paul Walsh