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Keyboard warriors are learning the limits of free speech online

Surrey man charged with threatening CNN anchor just the latest in a long line
Seth Tait of Chilliwack was convicted of uttering threats to Muslims and possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose on July 18, 2017 after he posted a series of YouTube videos at the end of 2016 and into early 2017. Photo: YouTube

The term “keyboard warrior” emerged in recent years to describe online trolls who are aggressive and abusive on social media but are generally cowards in real life.

Spend any time on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram and you know what I mean. But it’s important to know that with a few keystrokes, behaving badly online can have real world consequences.

An extreme example is, of course, Aydin Coban, the Dutch man who sexually extorted B.C. teen Amanda Todd for years before she died by suicide. This wasn’t just abusive comments or trolling online. This was criminal torment of the young girl culminating in Coban’s 13-year jail sentence.

That’s the extreme end of it, but sexual extortion online is nothing new, nor is sharing of child pornography. Both are serious criminal offences.

What about the online abuse hurled at journalists and women and the LGBTQ community on platforms such as Twitter?

Freedom of expression is an important right in Canada, protected by section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There are, however, limits to free speech.

The old adage is that free speech doesn’t mean you can yell “fire” in a crowded theatre. You also can’t threaten someone with physical harm online as a 38-year-old Surrey man has learned.

Nicholas Sullivan was charged on Nov. 10 with five counts of uttering threats to cause death or bodily harm through social media for threatening TV news anchor Erin Burnett and staff at CNN headquarters in New York.

READ MORE: B.C. judge sentences ‘sextortionist’ to 13 years in case involving Amanda Todd

READ MORE: Surrey man charged with threatening American journalist

“I just rant like everyone else. I’m not a credible threat,” Sullivan apparently told police, according to a court document obtained by CBC reporter Jason Proctor.

Surrey RCMP spokesperson Const. Sarbjit Sangha disagreed.

“As you have seen in this investigation, there are serious consequences when you are involved in posting threats to seriously harm somebody regardless of where they live and where you live,” Sangha told the CBC.

Closer to home, we saw something similar a few years back when Seth Tait posted a series of YouTube videos making violent threats against Muslims. On his “Soldier of Christ” YouTube channel, Tait rambled in often incoherent videos dressed in military garb while brandishing handguns, a shotgun, various knives, machetes, saws and other survival gear.

In the muffled audio, Tait could be heard preaching verses from the Bible and talking about all manner of conspiracy theories.

“There are Muslims that are here that rape little babies to death in gangs and force mothers to watch,” he says in one video. In another, he showed off what he said later was an air pistol saying “This thing will put a hole in a Muslim terrorist’s skull.”

Crown counsel cross-examined Tait in court in 2017 about how he had a machete that’s good for cutting up bodies, and that he wanted to get some pork bullets “to shoot up Muslim asses.”

At the first day of his trial he showed up with the words “Free Speech” written on the back of one of his hands in black marker. During a break in the trial, he walked back and forth on the courthouse steps waving Canadian and U.S. flags.

Tait’s lawyer focused on free speech and Tait’s claim that, despite repeated statements suggesting action is needed soon, he never really planned to act on his threats.

In the end, Tait crossed the free speech line, and he was convicted of uttering threats and possessing a weapon for a dangerous purpose.

READ MORE: Chilliwack man convicted of threatening Muslims in YouTube videos

He was sentenced to time served and banned from being within 100 metres of a mosque anywhere in B.C. He was also banned from The Progress for his repeated bad behaviour.

People like Sullivan and Tait seem to actually think what they do online is OK, or at least not illegal. Given the volume of vitriol that we see online daily that falls short of criminal behaviour, I’d say they could almost be excused.

“I don’t know if I can be charged for ranting on the internet like everyone else,” Sullivan told police.


Paul Henderson is editor of the Chilliwack Progress.