1960 anonymous-speech ruling still resonates

Monday, March 7, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 50 years ago today that the First Amendment protects a right to anonymous speech.

In Talley v. California (1960), the Court ruled in favor of civil rights activist Manuel Talley in a decision that remains a valuable precedent, particularly in the age of Internet and its amplification of anonymous speech.

Talley, who died in 1986, founded the Los Angeles chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality.

In 1932, Los Angeles adopted an ordinance that provided: “No person shall distribute any hand-bill in any place under any circumstances, which does not have printed on the cover, or the face thereof, the name and address of the following: (a) the person who printed, wrote, compiled or manufactured the same … .”

Local officials charged Talley in 1958 with violating the ordinance for handing out handbills that read: “National Consumers Mobilization, Box 6533.” The handbills urged individuals to boycott businesses that carried products of “manufacturers who will not offer equal employment opportunities to Negroes, Mexicans and Orientals.”

The handbills also said: “I believe that every man should have an equal opportunity for employment no matter what his race, religion, or place of birth.”

A local municipal court held that the handbills did not provide enough identifying information to satisfy the ordinance and fined Talley $10. A California appeals court affirmed the decision.

Talley appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which backed him, ruling 6-3. Justice Hugo Black focused on the importance of protecting anonymous speech. In an oft-cited passage, Black wrote:  “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures, and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.”

Black cited many past abuses in Great Britain, where the Crown punished people for refusing to disclose the identity of published material. He also noted that “even the Federalist Papers, written in favor of the adoption of our Constitution, were published under fictitious names.”

Justice Tom Clark wrote a dissenting opinion in which he questioned whether the First Amendment protected the right to anonymous speech. “I stand second to none in supporting Talley’s right of free speech — but not his freedom of anonymity,” he wrote. “The Constitution says nothing about freedom of anonymous speech.”

The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … .”

Today, battles over anonymous speech continue over political campaign flyers and anonymous posts on the Internet. The legacy of Manuel Talley and his anonymous leaflets endures in the significant Surpeme Court decision bearing his name.