New York State Senator Thomas O’Mara recently proposed legislation that would ban anonymous postings on websites in his state. The bill requires citizens posting on any blog, social network, message board or other forum, to turn over their full names, home addresses and IP address to web site administrators for public posting.
Although the bill is being pushed as an anti-bullying measure, statements by the bill’s sponsor reveal the underlying self-interest that makes the agenda for such sweeping legislation clear. State Assemblyman Jim Conte released a statement saying:
…the legislation will help cut down on the types of mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate and merely seek to falsely tarnish the opponent’s reputation by using the anonymity of the Web. By removing these posts, this bill will help to ensure that there is more accurate information available to voters on their prospective candidates, giving them a better assessment of the candidates they have to choose from.
Anonymous speech has played a part in our political process since the very founding of our nation. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers, which where primarily targeting voters in New York, under various pseudonyms. The Supreme Court upheld this precedent in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, noting:
“[u]nder 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.” McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n, 514 U.S. 334, 357 (1995)
“But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.” McIntyre, 514 U.S. 334, 357 (1995)
To this end, CCP Legal Director Allen Dickerson sent a letter today to Senator O’Mara and Assemblyman Dean Murray detailing the harmful effects of banning anonymous internet speech.
Attempting to unmask all internet commenters is more than just a waste of time; it is an affront to the civil liberties of all New Yorkers. Disagreeing with an anonymous person on the internet does not entitle one to that person’s personal information, and for good reason. Further justifying political disclosure measures as anti-bullying legislation does not change the fact that the Supreme Court has already ruled on this matter.