As Dan rightly notes, the recent court order unmasking the anonymous author of the “Skanks in NYC” blog raises serious privacy concerns. He elaborates on those concerns in his post, arguing that the court used too low of a standard, that the lawsuit may have been frivolous, and that anonymity needs greater protection. Dan links to CyberSLAPP, an EFF project which combats abusive lawsuits that seek to unmask anonymous critics of corporations or public figures.
CyberSLAPP’s site contains a spirited defense of a right of anonymous criticism which reads, in part:
Why is anonymous speech important?
There are a wide variety of reasons why people choose to speak anonymously. Many use anonymity to make criticisms that are difficult to state openly to their boss, for example, or the principal of their children’s school. The Internet has become a place where persons who might otherwise be stigmatized or embarrassed can gather and share information and support victims of violence, cancer patients, AIDS sufferers, child abuse and spousal abuse survivors, for example. They use newsgroups, Web sites, chat rooms, message boards, and other services to share sensitive and personal information anonymously without fear of embarassment or harm. Some police departments run phone services that allow anonymous reporting of crimes; it is only a matter of time before such services are available on the Internet. Anonymity also allows “whistleblowers” reporting on government or company abuses to bring important safety issues to light without fear of stigma or retaliation. And human rights workers and citizens of repressive regimes around the world who want to share information or just tell their stories frequently depend on staying anonymous sometimes for their very lives.
Is anonymous speech a right?
Yes. Anonymous speech is presumptively protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Anonymous pamphleteering played an important role for the Founding Fathers, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, whose Federalist Papers were first published anonymously. And the Supreme Court has consistently backed up that tradition, ruling, for example, that an Ohio law requiring authors to put their names on campaign literature was a violation of the First Amendment. Indeed, the Supreme Court has ruled that protecting anonymous speech has the same purpose as the First Amendment itself: to “protect unpopular individuals from retaliation and their ideas from suppression.”
Of course, any sensible person would be opposed to silencing today’s James Madisons or Alexander Hamiltons. Is this really the correct analogy here, though? Is Skanks in NYC like the Federalist Papers? Read More