Anonymous comments: Some NY lawmakers say no; what say you?

People who want to leave comments on the New York Times website may soon have to attach their names to the things they post if some lawmakers in New York state get their way, Ars Technica reports.

Bills pending in both houses of the New York State Legislature would require websites that are based in the state to "remove any comment...by an anonymous poster" unless the person agrees to have their name posted. One sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Jim Conte, says the proposal is a response to the rise of cyber bullying of children and a way to reduce "mean-spirited and baseless political attacks" by anonymous online commenters.

Could the bill withstand constitutional scrutiny if it becomes law? Ars Technica is skeptical, pointing out that anonymous political speech actually played a key role in early American history when Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote "The Federalist Papers" under the pseudonym Publius to urge adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

Precedent suggests the Supreme Court wouldn't look very kindly on the bill either. Reason magazine's blog lists a line of cases in which the court sided with people who wanted to communicate political messages anonymously (often by donating money to organizations or candidates). For example, the court ruled in 1958 that the state of Alabama ran afoul of the First Amendment by requiring the NAACP to reveal its donors.

But of course the First Amendment only spells out what the government can't do. Private websites can and do routinely ban anonymous comments, as newspapers such as the Buffalo News have done. The Cleveland Plain Dealer revisited its policy on anonymous comments after someone who had posted anonymously on its site violated its policy against personal attacks by "assailing the mental state of a reporter's relative." (The Plain Dealer later revealed the anonymous poster's e-mail address, which happened to match that of a local judge.)

As the Plain Dealer case shows, the issue of anonymous comments has become a hot one in journalism in the Internet age. (A recent piece in the American Journalism Review defends anonymity as "the one true cultural equalizer.") But what about in the public square? What about where government and public policy are concerned? Does anonymity practically guarantee unfounded, slanderous attacks? Or is it necessary to prevent intimidation or retaliation?

If you are a government employee, is anonymity sometimes the only way to can post a valid political or social comment without fear of losing your job? Does your job status limit your ability to weigh in on current events?

Weigh in on this issue in the Comments section below (which, by the way, you can do anonymously).

About the Author

Donald White is an assistant managing editor with 1105 Government Information Group.

Reader Comments

Fri, May 25, 2012 SoutheastUS

It is not just government employees that need anonymity to protect their jobs while being frank and honest on their opinions. Employers in any market or organization may have one stance on an issue and might be inclined to terminate employees who held other opinions. Make laws with very specific definitions of cyber-bullying along with providing guidance, within the statutes, for enforcement, and let people file complaints with the law enforcement folks who can then get court orders for server logs, etc. and can find the bullies for prosecution under the bullying laws. Having legislation that defines what is bullying and what is free speech can go a long way towards telling sensitive individuals what they need to learn to accept in a free society with free speech if they want to keep their sanity. Sometimes sensitivity is a sign that something is not quite right with the person that is sensitive. I have learned to recognize that trait somewhat in myself on occasion, and have learned to adapt so that I am no longer troubled by what used to bother me tremendously.

Fri, May 25, 2012 Joey Anonymous

I can't believe that this is remotely being discussed in 2012. When Conte says that he wants to eliminate "baseless political attacks" it is obvious that he is just attempting to make illegal any criticism of him himself.

Very, very sad that he thinks he can control his voters this way.

But it does offer great insight into the minds of some small-time politicians who crave order and control in the face of technologies which they are ill-equipped to understand.

Thu, May 24, 2012

"Assemblyman Jim Conte, says the proposal is a response to the rise of cyber bullying of children" The response to that is easy...you remove the bullying comments, not anonymous comments. Yet another attempt to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Any attempt to legislate what private websites are allowed to do on their own forums (within the confines of traditional law) will be destined for failure. Yes, my name really *IS* John Doe. Honest!

Thu, May 24, 2012 Rocky D.C.

I agree that anonimity is crutial to free speech and is protected by the first amendment. But as a site administrator for a public forum, I found that allowing anonymous posts invited abusive users. It got so bad that we had to tighten our requirements for participation by requiring registration to post a message. While this has eliminated the abusers, it seems to also have reduced the number of users of our forum. Could they have been one and the same? Not really but putting the squash on anonimity does seem to disuage frank and open discussion. If abusers didn't exist, anonimity wouldn't be a problem on our web forums.

Thu, May 24, 2012 Dasein San Diego

You forgot to mention that Ben Franklin himself raised anonymity to an art form as a newspaper editor. I don't believe for a minute this is about bullying. That's just a front.

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