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.

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