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Using anonymous free speech

Published March 09. 2013 09:02AM



Anonymity and the news business have been long time friends when it comes to getting out facts that may never otherwise see the light of day. One of the most famous anonymous sources was the infamous "Deep Throat" who led Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to the Watergate Scandal and brought about the downfall of then President Richard Nixon. Thanks to that source, Woodward and Bernstein received the information needed to blow the whistle on the corruption in the Nixon administration causing the only resignation of a sitting President. It took three decades and Nixon's death before this source came out of the shadows and was none other than Federal Bureau of Investigation Associate Director William Mark Felt.

Felt came clean at the age of 91 in May 2005 and his identity was confirmed by both Woodward and Bernstein. He revealed his motivations were his contempt for the Nixon administration and its bullying tactics in trying to manipulate the FBI so he began to feed Woodward information about the administration's misdeeds to bring public scrutiny and pressure on them in order to hold them accountable. He is probably the most famous anonymous source in modern journalism history although there have been others.

When I was younger and many years ago, this newspaper used to publish staff editorials that were semi-anonymous claiming the op-ed pieces were written by "A member of the staff". Before joining the paper as a free-lancer I wrote several letters to the editor throughout my life questioning, criticizing and trying to draw attention to various issues including property taxes, school board issues, local politics and of course the fight to retrieve Summit Hill's cannons among other issues. At one point, I believe I might have even written a letter calling into question why the newspaper allowed anonymous editorials but required letter writers to sign their names to their submissions. At some point this policy changed and the editorials the last 20 plus years have attributed to those who write them

There is a strong tradition of anonymity being used to spread dangerous or subversive ideas especially in non-democratic societies. For example, one famous anonymous author Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense advocating independence for the American colonies. Chief Justice John Jay anonymously authored some of the Federalist Papers to advocate for the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Both of these men used anonymity for their own reasons. Paine was anonymous to save himself from the gallows for committing treason against the crown. Jay probably was using anonymity to advocate for the Constitution while serving as Secretary of Foreign Affairs. These were both noble uses of anonymity to advance causes for freedom.

I think anonymity has a place when one is trying to protect one's family from the wrath of an unpopular philosophical position, but it is quite another thing when it is used as a weapon by gutless people to attack those who cannot defend themselves. The government also has limits on what protection is given to anonymous free speech especially when it deals with seditious behavior. It is acceptable to disagree philosophically with the government but the Feds do not take kindly to those who would attempt to use anonymous speech to motivate those who disagree to actively rise up against the government or to encourage active sedition.

What I find amusing is the Internet and anonymity are exact contradictions. There is no such thing as anonymity on the Internet. A smart hacker or a good subpoena will expose practically any so called anonymous know-it-all and there are many of them on some sites. People are brave when they think they cannot be held accountable, but in the end that house of cards will someday come crashing down.

Anonymous harassment has caused suicides and other tragedies so those who think this is a mature way to deal with conflict should realize somewhere at some point this type of speech is not noble nor is it justified.

One is not hidden from the world in their room typing anonymous slander on a computer or that latest blog entry. It is not difficult to find out the identity of those who do so. Every single thing we do is recorded. It's petty, disgusting and abusive to harass others anonymously and those who do it one day will regret it. Anonymity is not forever. Those hiding in that shadow are one legal document away from exposure. Keep that in mind the next time you post online. Frankly everyone is watching you.

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