Toronto harassment case may show how tweets can lead to jail
Published Tuesday, January 7, 2014 8:59PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 8, 2014 12:26PM EST
If you ever wonder if what you’re tweeting can be used against you in court, the answer is yes. And it could land you in jail.
“The law doesn’t make a distinction between the medium,” says Toronto Internet and defamation lawyer Gil Zvulony. “The only difference is the way people think about it.”
Skip ahead to the 26-minute mark of the video above to see our full interview with Zvulony.
He says as more people use social media, he is seeing more cases of defamation and harassment online. Opportunity has gone up with technological ease, but also because people think they can say things from the comfort of behind their computer. Tweeting something is the same as shouting it in person.
Today, a court case began in Toronto that may set a new precedent when it comes to social media harassment. And it may have implications for anyone who spends time online.
Gregory Alan Elliott was in court today accused of criminal harassment for messages allegedly posted to Twitter. A woman, who can’t be named, alleges Elliott sent her sexual messages and continued doing so even after she asked him to stop. She says she feared for her safety during the time Elliott was sending tweets. Two more women came forward last January and were added to the number of complainants.
Harassment is generally unsolicited words or conduct, which alarm or abuse another person and cause that person to fear for his or her safety. Just because it’s online it doesn’t mean it isn’t harassment, says Zvulony. If Elliott is found guilty he may face jail time, but it depends on the circumstances.
“People have been getting into conflicts with each other since the dawn of time,” he says. “People are just using new technology to vent.”
Facebook messages are used often in court, but to Zvulony’s knowledge, this is the first time someone has been charged for behavior exclusively on Twitter.
The lawyer says our laws are fully equipped to deal with a case like this. The claimant must prove she was really afraid, but the line between trolling and harassment online is blurry and people post offensive comments all the time on Twitter.
As for the defence, “I think one angle might be that the complainant had no reasonable basis to fear for her safety and that she is over-reacting.”
And regardless of the outcome in this case, Zvulony says at some point someone will be convicted and the medium will be Twitter. “Police will then have precedent and feel more comfortable enforcing it in the future.”
The problem for law enforcement occurs when the person allegedly doing the harassing is outside the country. There are no boundaries on the Internet, but Zvulony says “The law goes by where the people are. Anybody located in Canada is subject to our laws. If he was in another country then police would have little recourse. In theory they could involve foreign police and extradition, but that’s highly unlikely in your run of the mill case.”