The Nation's Pulse

Publius or Perish

High tech scolds want to chip away at a treasured constitutional right -- for the children.

By 3.17.08

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Assuming you were not a "hooky boy" like yours truly, you probably learned in grammar school that the pamphlet Common Sense was the spark that ignited the 13 colonies' passion for independence. The first edition was printed anonymously, as were most political or controversial tracts of that glorious era. It was, after all, the time of the breaking wheel, the stake, and the coups de grace.

At length, the debate over the future form of the United States Constitution would be laid before the American public in the form of anonymous newspaper articles by the likes of Paine, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, the latter three writing under the collective pseudonym "Publius," and answered by the anti-Federalists Adams ("Candidus"), Richard Henry Lee ("A Federal Farmer"), and Gov. George Clinton ("Cato"). At one time or other nearly every prominent American statesman of the revolutionary age composed anonymously, mostly to protect himself and his family from Tory tar and feathers.

Similarly the 19th century abolitionist cause would have been considerably less outspoken if pseudonymous writers had been prosecuted. Closer to our own day, George Kennan's anonymous "Sources of Soviet Power," (1947), laid out the strategy of containment that would guide U.S. foreign policy for much of the Cold War.

John Stuart Mill rightly assumed that every grandee from monarch to Sunday school superintendent opposes any form of anonymity, which Mill regarded as the minorities' shield against the majority's tyranny. Just as the Britain's George III would have killed to know who was behind Common Sense, I read today that government officials in the town of Manalapan, NJ, are aching to find the identity of a blogger who has been critical of them. Who knows what cruelties they will inflict should they find him? It is New Jersey, after all.

This is but a prelude to a story that appeared last week in the Kentucky papers. A so-called "Republican lawmaker" in that state would like to outlaw anonymous postings on the Internet. Presumably this will stop the urgent and continuing crisis of Internet bullying, apparently an epidemic in the Bluegrass State.

This most recent round of attacks on free speech began with the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier in 2006. No doubt you remember the story, the Missouri teen hanged herself after a cyberhoax led her to believe that she was being dumped by a teenage boy. The story played everywhere for about two weeks, then the media circus left town. In the end prosecutors determined that no laws had been broken.

The media may have found other fish, but a large contingent of highly emotional newswatchers had been deeply moved by the coverage and they demanded action, which as we all know generally means new legislation.

Along the way, the accusation of "cyberhoax" was dumped for the more ominous-sounding "cyberbullying," and loud demands were repeated for laws criminalizing anything mean done in cyberspace, e.g., cyberharassing, cyberteasing, in conjunction with laws banning anonymity on the Net.

AND WHY NOT? America, wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henniger, is a nation of laws, "a nation of laws by now so numerous that it provides jobs for more lawyers per capita than any nation on earth."

In the girl's hometown the village elders passed a measure that makes cyber-harassment a crime punishable by up to 90 days in the calaboose and a maximum $500 fine. Soon similar bills were introduced in Missouri, Arkansas, Oregon, Illinois, Washington, and Minnesota, after which I stopped counting.

I do not doubt for a minute that George W. Bush, John McCain or Barack Obama would sign such a bill into law the second it was slipped onto his desk (McCain especially, knowing his fondness for restricting "political" speech).

H.L. Mencken was convinced the American people despised free speech. I do not go that far, but I am tempted. The New Jersey Star-Ledger columnist Mark DiIonno spoke for many school board puritans and mother's club presidents when he said, "Anonymity cheapens our right to free speech. Anonymity gives us the option to hide, which is not what free speech is about. What free speech is about, is the right to not have to hide."

I would love to introduce this columnist to Mr. Ibn Warraq, but I don't know where he is. Ibn Warraq is not his real name. If he were to use his real name he would not have been able to write the books Why I am Not a Muslim, What the Koran Really Says and Defending the West. As an apostate from Islam he lives in hiding, under a permanent death sentence, similar to the Danish cartoonists who exercised their rights as free men to draw cartoons of Muhammed. Does their anonymity cheapen our right to free speech?

Certainly blaming cyberbullies or Myspace or gremlins is much easier than actually parenting your child. Even the kind of folks who watch reality TV know the Web is a dangerous place. Leaving your 13-year-old daughter alone on the Web is no different than abandoning her in a crowded train station at midnight. Lord knows what kind of creeps are lurking out there.

I have a friend whose teenage daughter had a similar nasty experience on Myspace. The mother simply picked up the phone and cancelled the Internet subscription. Talk about tough love. That, however, doesn't mean that her daughter is protected against all the world's bullies for now and forever. As Yusuf Islam once sang, "Oh, baby, baby it's a wild world."

Fortunately the gray beards on the U.S. Supreme Court are not often swayed by empty emotionalism and are not (at present) keen on making laws. With amazing foresight the Founders placed restrictions on government, not on individuals, when it came to speech. Today's Court also seems to accept the idea that anonymity is, or should be, sacred. In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm. (1995), the court held:

[A]n author is generally free to decide whether or not to disclose his or her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one's privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be, . . . the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry.

No one wants to defend personal attacks, anonymous or otherwise, yet even rough, impolite speech must be protected. Especially rough, impolite speech. Ban every word, phrase or sentiment that gives someone offense and soon we will be discoursing in grunts. "[I]am a maniacal advocate of free speech," said Mencken. "Politeness is the worst curse of the world."

Now that's a lesson they should be teaching in schools.

Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.