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When is a tweet criminal?
Matthew Harmes
Matthew Harmes

Twitter, like other social media, can lead to criminal charges. When does it cross the line and become harassment, resulting in criminal charges? In a recent case in Toronto, the Court had to grapple with this. Stephanie Guthrie was one of the complainants alleging that Gregory Elliott, who was an acquaintance of hers (they dined together at one point), was harassing her on line. According to the testimony, the relationship turned sour and Ms. Guthrie blocked his tweets (the social media equivalent of excommunication). Mr. Elliott, a Toronto artist, successfully guessed the hashtags that Ms. Guthrie would use and posted nasty comments on her on line and offline activities (Ms. Guthrie was a well known feminist activist). The main issue in the case was whether or not Ms. Guthrie reasonably feared for her safety. Ultimately, the Court found that she did not, after hearing the evidence. The Judge ruled that there was nothing in Mr. Elliott’s tweets which were of a “violent or sexual nature”. It was concluded that the debate, while nasty, was a legitimate exchange of views essentially. One troubling development in the case was that someone made an account impersonating Mr. Elliott and wrote homophobic tweets. The Judge said that that person (if identified), could be charged with “impersonation with intent to cause mischief”. This was believed to be the first Canadian case involving criminal charges solely for tweets. However, there was a previous case where Damany Skeene, Toronto, was convicted of criminal harassment and uttering threats against MP Michelle Repel, Calgary, by using Twitter. The lesson from these cases is that the online world is not lawless and tweets can lead to criminal charges.