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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/6/08

The Vital Role of Anonymous Speech

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"Everybody has a family," I said. "If nobody with a family speaks out because they are afraid, then who will speak out? If I am so afraid that I cannot even send a letter urging continued peace and goodwill, then what am I?"

Out of respect for her, I postponed sending the letter for two days while I searched for a way to follow my conscience without ignoring her valid fears. After some thinking, I hit upon the answer. It would be easy for them to accuse or harass my family if I sent a letter only to Ahmadinejad, but if I sent the same letter to several members of the U.S. Congress explaining my purpose, it would be difficult for anyone to call me an "enemy of the state," and impossible to "disappear" my family or myself.

That doesn't make me "braver" than anyone else. It simply means that I overcame a reasonable fear that everyone in America should feel today, and that I cannot blame anyone for feeling. I also can't blame them for wanting to avoid the possible consequences by remaining anonymous.

Mr. Tubbs states that those who would dare write under an assumed name are "too timid, too faint-hearted, the summer soldiers who lack even sufficient courage to identify themselves appropriately." While I strongly disagree, Mr. Tubbs is entitled to his own opinion. But in the very next sentence he abandons opinion to create his own fact from wholecloth: "Not a single advance in human progress has ever been accomplished by such as these." On this point, Mr. Tubbs is undeniably incorrect.

Throughout the history of America, anonymous and pseudonymous authors have provided invaluable contributions to our political discourse, and played an indispensable part in the founding of the nation.

In a 1999 Cato briefing paper, Nameless in Cyberspace: Anonymity on the Internet, Johnathan D. Wallace pointed out the crucial role played by such speech:

Controversial and thought-provoking speech has frequently been issued from under the cover of anonymity by writers who feared prosecution or worse if their identities were known. Cato’s Letters, an influential series of essays about freedom of speech and political liberty first appearing in 1720, were written by two British men, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, under the pseudonym “Cato.” Cato’s Letters had a wide following in America: Benjamin Franklin and numerous colonial newspapers reprinted the letters; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both quoted Cato.

“In the history of political liberty as well as of freedom of speech and press, no 18th-century work exerted more influence than Cato’s Letters,” historian Leonard Levy has written.

Mr. Wallace goes so far as to call anonymous and pseudonymous speech "cornerstones of free speech."

Thomas Paine’s famous Common Sense was first published signed only, "An Englishman."

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote the pseudonymous newspaper letters known as The Federalist Papers under the collective pseudonym "Publius." And it was not a one-time thing: 85 of those essays were published in numerous editions. They argued against the Anti-Federalists, who used their own pseudonymous identities: Samuel Adams wrote as "Candidus," Richard Henry Lee as "A Federal Farmer," and George Clinton as "Cato."

William Watkins, a freeborn black minister and doctor for the black population of Baltimore during the Civil War era, protested slavery and promoted equality under the name "A Colored Baltimorean." He later wrote for Frederick Douglass’ paper under the name “A Colored Canadian.”

James McCune Smith, who held a doctorate degree in medicine and opened the first black-owned pharmacy, wrote under the pseudonym "Communipaw" about the abolitionist cause. Historian Peter Ripley states, "Smith helped define many of the themes of the black abolitionist movement."

Sarah L. Forten, a founding member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, wrote for the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, under the name "Magawisca." She also used the pseudonyms "A" and "Ada." Her brother, James, wrote for The Liberator under the pseudonym "F."

Sarah M. Douglass was another female abolitionist who wrote under the name "Zillah." She urged abolitionists to also "confront inequality within their own movement."

Wallace points to more modern instances of pseudonymity's role in political speech:

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JC Garrett is a freelance writer and Constitutional scholar from the piney-woods of East Texas. Mr. Garrett owns and operates an independent recording studio, plays several instruments, writes, sings, and produces music. His stories have (more...)
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