Identity and anonymity

On the Dallas Morning News opinion blog today, the paper brags about what sets its letters apart from online discussion: identity. They quote a frequent letter writer named Chris (irony: no last name given) who says:

There was a statement in this guide whose importance is understood by far too few. Maybe it should have been entered in bigger and bolder lettering. The statement went as follows:

“There is no shortage of online forums where people can make up facts and throw bombs. But in our published letters to the editor, people sign their names and publicly stand behind their opinions.”

In a free society, opinions without sources reflect poorly on both writers and readers. This fact, along with the feedback that hard copy journalism has concerning government at all levels, constitute a valuable rationale for the necessity, existence and continuation of such journalism.

I’m not sure I can parse that last sentence into anything approaching clarity. But the point of the rest is clear: identity is good.

But then there’s a comment left by one PaulC (no last name, either), who argues:


“In an important case for privacy and free speech advocates, the
Supreme Court ruled recently that the First Amendment protects
anonymous political speech. In McIntyre v. Ohio Election Commission,
decided April 19, 1995, the Court struck down an Ohio law that required
the disclosure of personal identity on political literature. . . .

Justice Steven’s opinion for the Court note that arguments favoring
the ratification of the Constitution advanced in the Federalist Papers
were published under fictitious names. Justice Stevens said “quite
apart from any threat of persecution, an advocate may believe her
ideas will be more persuasive if her readers are unaware of her
identity. Anonymity thereby provides a way for a writer who may be
personally unpopular to ensure that readers will not prejudge her
message simply because they do not like its proponent.” Stevens
concluded “Under 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. “

Each is right. I have long said here that I give more credence and value to the opinions of those who stand by those opinions with their names, as I do here. But there is a place for anonymity in political discourse (and in whistleblowing and under repressive regimes).