Will Ruling on Twitter-Based Harassment Affect Family Law?
In a case that made the headlines last week, Gregory Alan Elliott was found by an Ontario Court to be not guilty of criminally harassing two women, Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly, by way of Twitter. They had accused him of being “creepy” and misogynistic in what they considered to be an excessive number of Twitter references to them, even after they blocked him and asked him to stop. The women, who happened to be involved in a group called Women in Toronto Politics, felt that the sheer “volume” and obsessive nature of Elliott’s tweets left them feeling harassed to such an extent that they complained to police, resulting in Elliott’s arrest and criminal proceedings. As the court described it:
Mr. Elliott sent some tweets directly to both women, but the prosecution does not rely on the direct tweets alone. Ms. Guthrie’s harassment and fear came from her perception that Mr. Elliott sent an incessant and obsessive amount of tweets, including those not sent directly to her but of which she would have been advised. Ms. Reilly became fearful when she inferred from one of his tweets that Mr. Elliott might be in the same physical place as her. The alleged communication by tweeting also includes tweets by Mr. Elliott about subjects, topics, ideas and events that Ms. Guthrie and Ms. Reilly were interested in and therefore might or probably would read.
The back-story and coverage of the three-year long criminal case and subsequent acquittal in R. v. Eiliott – which is apparently the first Canadian one of its kind involving Twitter as the medium for the alleged harassment – is easily found on the internet. But the interesting question is whether this criminal law decision will have any reverberation in the sphere of family law disputes.
In the past, I have written about the use of Facebook (and theoretically, other social media) in divorce and related family proceedings. In that context, Facebook’s role has come under scrutiny in many different contexts:
• the admissibility of evidence secretly obtained from a spouse’s Facebook;
• whether parents should be barred from posting details of their family disputes online;
• whether non-public Facebook information should be kept private in terms of disclosure for family proceedings; and
• and the question of how children might be adversely affected by posted information, as in the case of the separated father who posted photos of his children on his Facebook page.
Collectively, the outcomes in these cases suggest that courts remain conservative and resoundingly sensitive when striking a balance between broader freedom of expression rights on the one hand, and the protection of spouses’ and children’s interests on the other, even in the “wild west” milieu of social media. Indeed, family courts have certainly shown a willingness to address – and if need be, curtail — any intrusive and negative effects of social media, so that the resolution of family disputes does not impair the rights and interests of its participants, especially the children.
It will be interesting to see how this latest ruling in R. v. Elliott will be adapted (if at all) to the family law realm, given that it arguably upholds a relatively-unfettered ability to use of Twitter (within the customary proscribed limits imposed by Canadian constitutional, criminal and human rights law, of course).
For the full text of the decision, see: