The internet must never be a safe space

When Toronto artist Gregory Alan Elliott entered a heated argument with feminists back in 2012, he could not have anticipated the illiberal fate that would befall him. For having the temerity to disagree with them on Twitter – over a plan to ruin the life of an anti-feminist games developer – a criminal harassment report was filed against Elliott by one of the feminists, Stephanie Guthrie. Two further reports were later filed by Heather Riley and Paisley Rae.

Most sensible people would have expected the case against Elliott to be thrown out before it reached court. Instead, Gregory has been subjected to a three-year investigation and trial, racking up legal fees in excess of $100,000. He was also banned from the internet for two years and his artwork has been defaced by feminist groups around Toronto. His livelihood and reputation have suffered immeasurable damage.

This case was extreme, but far from unexpected. In recent years there has been growing hysteria about the alleged harassment women experience online. In September, the United Nations published a bizarre report called Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls. Riddled with inaccuracies and falsehoods, the report was published with the intention of making the internet a ‘safer space’ for women and girls. But, as the Elliott case demonstrates, what a ‘safer space’ really means is placing the easily offended above criticism and debate.

The internet must never be a safe space for anyone. The internet is, at its best, an intellectual space designed for sharing information and ideas. It is not your home – it is a public platform. Words do not wound. When we allow self-professed victims the power to decide what is considered safe and unsafe, we abandon free speech entirely.

A judge is set to rule on Elliott’s case in January 2016. The outcome will set a precedent for online free speech across the Western world. Those of us who believe in free expression for all need to get behind him, not only for his sake, but in defence of the internet as we know it.

An online fund has been set up by Elliott’s son in the hope of covering some of his legal fees. Please donate generously.

Stephen Beard is a writer and researcher based in Liverpool.

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