A Right to Free Speech, Not Anonymity

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I want to share a thought about the on-going CNN/Reddit controversy, the question – reasonably – whether CNN should have maintained the privacy of the racist, violence-inciting Reddit user who had his anti-CNN gif picked up by President Trump. I don’t take seriously the idea that CNN ‘blackmailed’ this guy, a middle-aged man who as yet remains unidentified. But in any case I’d like suggest that newsworthiness rather than privacy is the proper prism through which to look at the question.

The only real question is whether the identity or background of the man who created the gif Trump used is newsworthy. I’m not entirely clear on this question. But I think there’s at least a reasonable argument that it was. The President of the United States used this person’s work to attack a leading news organization. The President’s readership and patronage of online racists, anti-Semites and people who incite violence is a longstanding issue. As I said, I think there’s at least a decent argument that it was newsworthy, though I think you could make a contrary argument.

If the story is newsworthy, then I don’t think the privacy issue has any merit at all.

We give broad grants of privacy to minors, victims of sexual violence and a few other classes of people. But the truth is that people get swept up in news stories they don’t want to be part of all the time. It’s the rule, not the exception. It is seldom a pleasant experience for the people involved. Granting a new, special zone of protection for people who spew racist hatred and incite violence behind a veil of anonymity seems perverse and inexplicable. It sounds like a special right to evade the social opprobrium which is the near inevitable result of profoundly anti-social behavior.

Again, the real question is whether the story itself is newsworthy. If it’s not, then it’s just digging into someone’s personal life with no justification. If it is, then there’s really no issue.

Let me add a further thought.

Minor controversies like these are good examples that we have yet to work out good theories of online privacy and privacy in general in a world in which so much information about us is so readily available and in which that information can be so rapidly shared to so many. The right to speak and remain private clearly has some place. But I would argue that speech without accountability – which is what anonymity frequently enables – creates a basic breakdown in the economy of speech and civic discourse. To put it in market terms, it is the moral hazard of the public square.

Much of the anonymity of hate holes like Reddit amounts to a weaponized anonymity. Few people would still argue that Klansmen have a reasonable claim to privacy wearing their hoods as they ‘non-violently’ burn their crosses. But that is essentially what these racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic subreddits are. To use another analogy they are like the old days when factories could disburse toxic chemicals into rivers creating vast public hazards at no cost to themselves.

Let’s state the matter clearly, extremely anti-social or bigoted speech carries social opprobrium. That doesn’t put an end to it. There are plenty of online racists and anti-Semites who speak in their own name. But for most it puts some limit on it or creates some social cost for it. This isn’t an unalloyed good because there are plenty of kinds of unpopular speech that we want to protect. But on balance it adds some level of restraint just as the risk of exposure does with other forms of anti-social behavior, or just as the risk of financial loss should and usually does put brakes on risky financial behavior. The demand to speak freely and have nobody think poorly of you for it is a common demand on the right today. Indeed, we can see something similar in the demands of very wealthy campaign contributors who not only want the right “buy speech” with no limits but also want to be able to do so anonymously. But no such right should or does exist.

Lest it seem like I’m carving out limitations to speech based on ‘good’ speech and ‘bad’ speech or what I personally deem harmful, I’m not. The right to free speech I see in near absolute terms – with the standard exceptions for things like yelling fire in a crowded theater. But the right to speak anonymously has no legal or constitutional or moral basis at all. (Whether or not you have an affirmative obligation to identify yourself, I see no basis for demanding that others not identify you.) Indeed, it is worth noting that in the traditional public square speech with total anonymity is quite difficult. Obviously you cannot literally speak in a public space without people seeing who you are (setting aside masks and hoods). And even with the long and honorable history of anonymous or pseudonymous writing – let’s take Madison, Hamilton and Jay in The Federalist Papers – there are real brakes on anonymity since the publisher is not anonymous and must stand behind and answer for what they choose to publish. All of this goes to show that the kinds of anonymity which the Internet has made possible are not just different in degree but fundamentally different from what has gone before it.

The obvious rejoinder I see to this is that there are whole classes of people – women, people of color, et al – who are routinely stalked, threatened and in some cases even physically attacked for expressing their views. These people certainly have good reason in many cases for wanting to remain anonymous or at least keep lots of personally identifying information secret. I don’t have a good answer for this or rather a good answer for creating a zone of privacy/anonymity for one group of people and not others. As I said, I don’t think we’ve worked this out sufficiently yet as a society. But let’s be frank: the people making the most strident demands for anonymity and weaponizing it most effectively are precisely the people harassing and stalking and in extreme cases committing violence against women, minorities, Jews and others. We can’t ignore this obvious fact. As I say, I don’t have a clear or perfect solution. But the beginnings of one must be in norms and laws that prohibit stalking, intimidation and threats of violence that cow people into silence. Simply being able to speak – or more pointedly, express hate and not have people dislike you or not want to associate with you is not a right. It is certainly not a right we as a society have any interest in upholding.


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