N.Y. bills would squelch anonymity online

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My name is a line or three above this one.

It tells you who I say I am — and, if you care to look, you can find out more about me easily and in short order by going to the Web.

But do we need to know everybody’s name who, literally or figuratively, puts pen to paper (or would that be “keystroke to electrons”)?

Two identical New York legislative proposals — Senate Bill 6779 and Assembly Bill 8688 – would virtually do away with anonymous online postings by requiring Web administrators, upon receiving a complaint, to take down any comments to which the writer has not attached his or her name.

There’s been no vote yet these, but they’re attracting a good deal of attention from free-speech advocates who say there’s no need for them. Sponsors say such a law would help lessen a variety of ills, from bullying to “mean-spirited and baseless political attacks.”

Like proposals to curb hateful speech or to require young people to dress better, the intentions of the bills’ sponsors and supporters may be good. But they’re not thinking this idea through — they’re ignoring about 50 years of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court protecting anonymous speech, to say nothing of about 230 years of American tradition.

In 1960, the Supreme Court in Talley v. California threw out a Los Angeles city ordinance that required names and addresses of sponsors of leaflets and fliers. Justice Hugo 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.”

More recently, in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that “under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”

He said the First Amendment exists “to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation — and their ideas from suppression — at the hand of an intolerant society.”

“The right to remain anonymous,” Stevens wrote, “may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.”

Existing laws provide that if a person files a lawsuit claiming he or she was defamed in an online posting, there are means — a subpoena — of discovering the identity of the writer.

Even a number of the nation’s founders opted for anonymity when writing their portions of the Federalist Papers — a fact noted in both of the Court’s opinions.

What’s posted online in New York state may not rise to the level of helping to define a nation. But we ought not to throw out a necessary, long-protected mode of public discourse and democracy just to prevent the impolite, inappropriate and impolitic from speaking out online.

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