A Right to Anonymous Speech but Not a Right to Sue for Outing

by on June 16, 2009 · 4 comments

The Gawker offers a fascinating discussion of the legal right to anonymity:

“There is clearly a moral case that some people should be able to join the public debate and retain their anonymity,” Tench told Gawker. “And I think this will have a chilling effect. Blogs like this can only exist anonymously, and I imagine that anyone who wanted to set one up is thinking about this case.”

As well they should. But the notion that anonymous publishers have a right, in perpetuity, to keep their identities a secret—or that people who learn their identities are honor-bound not to reveal them—is nonsense.

Amen! One can resist, fiercely, government efforts to reduce online anonymity through age verification or identity authentication mandates, as Adam Thierer have argued most recently in our work about efforts to expand COPPA to cover adolescents (“COPPA 2.0,” which would indirectly mandate age verification for large numbers of adults for the first time).  One might even argue that there are moral reasons to resist the urge to out pseudonymous/anonymous bloggers (just as one might avoid outing closeted gays out of respect for their privacy).   But one need not accept the pernicious idea that the government should punish the outing of peusodonymous/anonymous writers, which is simply a restraint on legitimate free speech.

This exchange, cited by the Gawker article, is particularly interesting, and demonstrates how one can distinguish the question of whether outing is “right” or “appropriate” from the question of whether it should be punished by law:

When the National Review‘s Ed Whelan revealed Publius, who writes for Obsidian Wingsto be a professor of law at the South Texas College of Law named John F. Blevins earlier this month, the palpable online outrage forced Whelan to apologize.

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