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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/6/08

The Vital Role of Anonymous Speech

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George Kennan, a high-ranking member of the staffs of General George C. Marshall and President Harry S Truman and considered by many to be the architect of America’s postwar policy of “containment,” signed his influential 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Power,” merely as “X.”

Pseudonymity has also protected people stigmatized by prior political speech or association; many blacklisted writers continued to work throughout the McCarthy era by using names other than their own.

Contrary to Mr. Tubbs' assertion that there is no reason anyone should be afraid to publish their personal information on the internet, there are many legitimate concerns. Tubbs makes his position clear:

"I am wholly unconvinced by assertions that to provide one's full name and city of residence is dangerous today. That goes directly to the issue of courage and the strength of one’s convictions. Either you’ve got ‘em, or you don’t."

Well, many of the folks using pseudonyms on the net just happen to not "have 'em." Women are more vulnerable to violent crimes, especially those of a sexual nature, than are men. They are far more likely to be propositioned on the internet, and they are more likely to be stalked by predatorial creeps. I know I don't want my daughter using her real name and town on the internet. In many ways, that's just asking for trouble that could easily be prevented. That doesn't mean women shouldn't use their real identities if they want to, only that they should never be expected to do so if they choose not to.

But even the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized the value of anonymous speech, and for various reasons having little or nothing to do with physical safety. In Talley v. California and again in McIntyre v. Ohio Campaign Commission the Court said, "Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind."

The Court said an author may have any number of valid reasons for concealing his or her identity:

The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible.

They said that anononymity "provides a way for a writer who may be personally unpopular to ensure that readers will not prejudge her message simply because they do not like its proponent." This goes directly to my own situation in which I protect my name from being blacklisted when dealing with public officials and elected representatives. It would also include those who write under pseudonyms who may be known publicly because of their profession, and wish readers to consider the content of their message and not the person writing it.

But even more importantly, the Court acknowledged what I consider to be one of the most crucial reasons to protect the right to anonymity in political discourse:

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.

In his briefing paper, Wallace notes that "the Court repeatedly upheld the right of the NAACP to keep its membership lists secret from state prying." He further says that in another case, the Court, "...citing an astonishing record of federal government harassment and dirty tricks, the Court excused the Ohio Socialist Workers’ Party from state requirements that it disclose its list of contributors."

In his book The Authoritarians, Bob Altemeyer relates a story about a woman in a nearby city who wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the mayor and city council.

She said the present council lacked initiative and acted too often in the interest of “boys with money and toys.” A few days later the pastor of the Pentecostal church she attends wrote her, saying her letter was an embarrassment because good Christians do not publicly criticize their leaders. He told her to find another church if she was not going to change her ways.

People lose jobs over what they write. They lose promotions, they get the worst work assignments, they get ignored by their union representatives who are supposed to be there to help them when they have a legitimate grievance with management. It's real, and it can affect your livelihood. It can determine whether your kids have food on the table.

I agree with Mr. Tubbs on many relevant issues, such as the need to stand up and to fight tyranny. I agree that we all should be more bold and do more than sit back and watch as spectators while our liberty is slowly siphoned off by a government whose thirst for power is never slaked.

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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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