November 29, 2023

The Inescapable Conundrum of Anonymous Speech

There is no free speech if the government can forbid anonymous speech.

Nikki Haley provoked a backlash when she told Fox News that if she becomes president, she wants to make it illegal to post anonymously on social media.

“Every person on social media should be verified by their name,” declared Haley, a former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador who is pursuing the Republican presidential nomination. She claimed that banning anonymous comments would improve both national security (it “gets rid of the Russian bots, the Iranian bots, and the Chinese bots”) and the tone of public discourse (“you’re going to get some civility when people know their name is next to what they say”). In a podcast appearance the same day, Haley doubled down. “They need to verify every single person on their outlet,” she said emphatically, referring to platforms like Facebook, Reddit, and X (Twitter), “and I want it by name.”

Among the critics who promptly slammed Haley’s remarks was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another GOP primary hopeful. In addition to calling her proposal “dangerous and unconstitutional,” he noted that expressing views from behind a pseudonym is an ancient American tradition. “You know who were anonymous writers back in the day?” DeSantis tweeted. “Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison when they wrote the Federalist Papers.”

DeSantis didn’t mention his own attack on anonymity earlier this year. He backed legislation that would have instructed Florida courts that, in any libel suit against a news organization, a published statement from an unnamed source should be presumed false. That measure too was blasted (by the Freedom of the Press Foundation) as a “blatantly unconstitutional attack on speech and press freedoms.”

After taking heat, Haley backed down from her threat to abolish anonymous posting. DeSantis’s attempt to undermine anonymity never went anywhere either. For that matter, nothing ever came of Donald Trump’s insistence a decade ago that it be “mandatory that all haters and losers use their real name or identification when tweeting.”

To a nation that cherishes and upholds free speech, anonymity poses an insoluble conundrum. The harms it makes possible are all too real. From behind the mask of a pseudonym (or no name at all), bad actors are emboldened to spew hatred and abuse, to disseminate lies and disinformation, to whip up bigotry against minorities and incite animosity against those they resent. People lacking the courage to identify themselves will spread ugly rumors, trash reputations, and promote conspiracy theories surreptitiously. And while that has always been the case, the digital revolution has compounded it by orders of magnitude. The nastiness of social media, the vitriol of online comment sections, the viciousness of trolls — they are familiar to just about anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

But if anonymity can be toxic, it can also be invaluable. It can shield dissidents, reformers, or truth-tellers from the retaliation of the powerful. It allows thoughtful individuals to candidly express views on contentious issues without worrying that their words will maliciously be used to cancel them. It helps counteract the chilling effect caused by our culture’s merciless thought police, who have deemed certain opinions unsayable and persecute anyone who deviates.

By separating speech from its author, anonymity paves the way for ideas to be considered on their own merits. As a 16-year-old apprentice in Boston, Benjamin Franklin knew that few people would take his views on public affairs seriously. So, as he recounted in his Autobiography, “I contriv’d to disguise my Hand, and writing an anonymous Paper I put it in the Night under the Door of the Printing House.” That anonymous paper was the first of his 14 “Silence Dogood” essays published in the New-England Courant — the initial step toward his career as a public figure.

Throughout US history, anonymity has provided a means to challenge those with great power — from Thomas Paine’s seminal pamphlet “Common Sense” to the anonymous op-ed column by a Trump administration official published by The New York Times in 2018. In 1960, the Supreme Court struck down a Los Angeles ordinance prohibiting the distribution of anonymous flyers and handbills. When Manuel Talley circulated unsigned leaflets urging customers to boycott shops that refused to hire non-white workers, he was prosecuted and fined $10. But in Talley v. California, the nation’s highest court overturned the conviction.

“Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind,” wrote Justice Hugo Black in a stirring opinion. “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.”

There is no free speech if the government can forbid anonymous speech. Like all expression, nameless social media posts can be put to repugnant uses. But under the Constitution, we err on the side of freedom. Anonymous speech can be vile. Banning it would be worse.

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