question of the weekend: Does freedom of speech require anonymity?

V for Vendetta

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about anonymity on the Web, whether the option to be unidentified contributes to trollish behavior, and worries over whether an end of anonymity online would put a damper on free speech. And then I came across an article at NPR this week, “Newspaper Takes A Stand On Anonymous Commenters,” which contains this bit:

Does Free Speech Require Anonymity?

“To have free speech in this community, I think you have to have anonymity,” Oliveria argues.

Huckleberries Online covers Coeur d’Alene and northern Idaho, small communities where there’s a constant battle between the factions of the dominant Republican Party.

“In this town, there’s so much infighting, if some of these folks identified themselves, they couldn’t make these comments,” Oliveria says. “I have a lot of folks online here that are in a lot of key positions in the community.”

If his bosses at the Spokesman-Review required real names, he says, it would kill his blog — and deprive the community of a crucial forum.

But Oliveria also acknowledges he can only keep that discussion constructive by spending a lot of time monitoring it, and blocking the trolls.

“When you follow comments as closely as I do, I can tell by the sound who a person is,” he says. “They can keep changing their IP address, and I keep blocking ’em. And it frustrates them far more than it frustrates me, because I’m on there all the time.”

It made me realize that, as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t really been much discussion, surrounding this whole big messy matter, of whether anonymity actually is a requirement of free speech. So:

Does freedom of speech require anonymity?

Speaking from the narrow perspective of freedom of speech as defined by the U.S. Constitution, I think it would be hard to justify the notion that the American Founding Fathers had anonymity in mind when setting out a right to free speech. To them, freedom of speech would have been anything from standing up on a corner shouting to owning your own printing press — anonymity as we think of it today simply wouldn’t have been possible.

Of course, there are situations in which speaking out publicly about, say, repressive governments would be dangerous to the speaker. But surely in such a situation, tyranny is the real problem, not the lack of anonymity.

I’m not sure which side I come down on here. Mostly, I’m playing devil’s advocate, because I think it’s been taken for granted that anonymity is a necessary part of a freedom of speech, and we should at least talk about it before we come to a conclusion.

For my part, I’ve never been anonymous online, and I’ve never felt limited because of that. I’ve always been the sort of person who says what she means and means what she says, and who isn’t afraid to own my words and defend them.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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