Media Matters

False Free Speech

Should the First Amendment protect the cowardice of slanderers who hide behind anonymity on the Internet?

By 9.8.08

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When the history of the Internet is written, one of its major elements will be the explosion of online forums (aka discussion boards, chat rooms), newspaper websites, and blogs (web logs).

The Internet has provided thousands of outlets for comments by viewers, and comment they do, from banal to droll to informative to vicious. A large number of these are offered anonymously, and partisans of the form argue that to require real names would inhibit free speech. The limits of this kind of free speech are in the process of being tested.

Last year, two women students at Yale Law School filed a lawsuit in federal court against one student by name and several anonymous posters. They claim that their "character, intelligence, appearance and sex lives have been thoroughly trashed" by the defendants. Their claim was based on anonymous comments made about the women on the law school message board of AutoAdmit, a group of Internet forums for prospective and actual college and law students.

Among the statements at issue are postings that the named women should be raped. The women's complaint contends that the posts defamed them, were sexually harassing and could have adverse effects on their careers. The reputation of the AutoAdmit message board is not exactly wholesome. One law professor cited by the Wikipedia Encyclopedia calls it "a cesspool of infantile morons and sociopaths."

The named defendant, Anthony Ciolli, a third-year law school student at the University of Pennsylvania, subsequently resigned from school and his job offer from a law firm was rescinded. His name has since been dropped from the list of defendants. The plaintiffs subsequently sent subpoenas to the posters' Internet service providers. This has yielded the name of one poster, a University of Texas student.

This is not the first time AutoAdmit has been the center of controversy. In early 2005, one reader accused it of allowing racist and anti-Semitic comments. The forum's administrators took the position that they had no legal obligation to remove offensive material.

The next year, U.S. Senator George Allen, at a campaign reelection appearance, referred to a volunteer of his opponent as "macaca," considered to be a slur. Not long thereafter, someone using that man's name (S.R. Sidarth) made wild posts on AutoAdmit, alleging that he'd had sex with a transvestite while high on amphetamine. The real Sidarth denied ever posting to the site and the actual impostor later confessed (without revealing his real name).

Two days after the Virginia Tech massacre last year, a poster using the name "Trustafarian" put a message on AutoAdmit suggesting that he might repeat the event at the University of California's Law School. Classes were canceled and the school shut down for the day.

Jarret Cohen, who owns AutoAdmit, subsequently wrote an article in the Harvard Law Review in which he defended his forum's policies and said that censorship was not the answer. Of course it is not.

The answer lies in self-restraint. The trigger for that is disclosure of a writer's identity. With rare exception, people who must put their names to their views do not engage in prurient statements and character defamation. I can attest to that from recent experience. The newspaper of which I am the editorial pages editor re-launched its website in January. It welcomed comments, but did not require those making them to use their real names. It received plenty of anonymous comments. Many of these were vile, vicious, profane and demeaning. None of them advanced rationale arguments about articles or issues at hand.

We then did what needed to be done: We imposed the same rule we used for letters to the editor in the printed newspapers. Writers had to give us their real names along with telephone numbers so that we could verify their authenticity. The result: The number of comments on the website dropped, but those that are there are civil. They may argue strenuously, some more effectively than others, but they are free to argue any point they wish to make. The lesson here is that self-restraint advances free speech; anonymity for the purpose of peddling hate or mischief harms it.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”