As many of you might have heard, Gregory Alan Elliott, a man accused of criminal harassment on Twitter, was recently acquitted. Without delving too far into the details of the case, a woman who felt that Mr. Elliott was criminally harassing her chose to come forward and report the series of incidents to the police. Mr. Elliott went through a three-year criminal trial, with the case resulting in an acquittal. Vice says that it sets a “scary precedent for women”; I couldn’t disagree with this more. You know what sets a scary precedent for women?
Having a central authority dictate what you can and cannot say in civil society.
Now, obviously, I want to make clear that I most definitely do not apologize for, nor excuse, instances of threatening another individual’s life or safety. That stated, the core reality of free speech is that anything short of that must always remain protected, no matter how unpleasant.
Instead of getting into the nastiness of this case, and the relationship between Elliot and the people he was supposedly harassing on Twitter, I want to get to the heart of this issue – defending free speech. Free speech is simply one of those things that cannot be compromised on. First off, ask yourself what you stand for. African-American civil liberties? LGBT rights? Equality for women? All of the above? None of these battles would have been sustained without the legal protection of unpopular speech in the west. I say ‘the west’ with great deliberation, as the rights we enjoy are most certainly unique to certain parts of the world. Do you wish to start a large protest rally in favour of defending the legal equality of women and homosexuals in Saudi Arabia or the UAE? Perhaps an anti-government event in China? The likelihood of you making it out of those situations alive is about the same as actually swaying anybody to your point of view. Why is this? Because countries like China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran are not free countries. Countries like these are not open or conducive to criticism. Countries like these are not places where freedom is a priority, nor is equality a goal.
So, back to the case with Elliott. Why does this matter to free speech? The reality is that Elliott, no matter how persistent or rude he was, never once presented a credible threat of violence. He may have called these women names, he may have co-opted their hashtags to insult them or criticize their ideas. However, there is absolutely nothing even slightly illegal about being impolite or annoying in this country, nor should there ever be. For those of you who have been saying that the verdict on this case is some kind of indication of ‘white male privilege,’ take a moment to give your head a shake. This man was merely using the same social media methods that social justice warriors use to intimidate businesses and individuals on a daily basis. In fact, this man didn’t come anywhere close to the practices that are so often used to take down the thinkers of unpopular thought in our society. This pattern of behaviour is the cancer of our society. This case serves as a reminder to those petitioning for Elliott’s arrest that our justice system will not bow to the whims of popular speech. Free speech is the tool that empowers the downtrodden in a society, and attempting to limit it is a sign of cowardice and weakness.
The never-ending liberal thirst for freedom, and the free speech which freedom requires, is the reason why the western world is the envy of all else. The rights which we enjoy are very unique and must be constantly fought for. When looking at a case like this, you need to remember to separate your own opinions from the piece. Regardless of your opinions on third-wave feminist activism, or any other political or social movement, the rights of those opposing said movement must always be fought for and protected. This is a pluralist, free society, where debate and dissent (no matter how rude) must be encouraged and protected. In fact, there is a whole host of societies who are in need of a constant supply of people who do not value individual liberties. If that doesn’t appeal to you (for reasons I could not fathom), take the time to realize that the reason we have it so good here is because of the very freedoms that so many undervalue in our society; it’s time that we remind ourselves of the privilege of the freedoms we enjoy, and the solemn responsibility of protecting it.