from the the-debate-is-on dept
Was Blog for Arizona out of line for outing John Huppenthal as an anonymous commenter, as Mr. Geigner suggests in his recent post?
In this specific case, absolutely not. Among other things, Huppenthal invited us to publish his comments; he was so careless that his identity could be ascertained from the comments themselves, with no reference to the IP addresses we had, and he was posting from a government agency, which would be required to divulge the sites he visited if asked.
Let's put all that aside and approach the more fundamental question: How secure should a John Huppenthal be in his anonymity? He cited the Founding Fathers, several of who wrote anonymously when penning the Federalist Papers.
But the issue here is not the right to anonymous speech. Nobody disputes that right. The issue is whether there is a right to anonymous speech with zero risk of being exposed, even if the speaker is a public figure.
In our judicial system, very few rights are absolute. Why? Because there are competing interests.
For example, public figures do not receive the same level of protection from defamatory statements as ordinary citizens do. If I publish an unfavorable statement against Joe Sixpack, Joe only need show the statement was false in a suit for defamation. But if I make the same statement about an elected official, he has to show not only that the statement was false, but that I made it with reckless disregard for the truth. Why the difference? Because of the competing interest. As a society we don't want people with information about public figures to be overly fearful of coming forward.
If we were to attempt absolute protection of the anonymity of public figures in their online comments, we necessarily would have to encroach upon the freedom of the press and the associated protection of confidentiality of sources. Suppose Blog for Arizona did not expose Huppenthal directly, but instead had one of our writers speak off the record to a reporter, who then called Huppenthal out based on a confidential source and asked Huppenthal to request that Blog for Arizona publicize all its information. Huppenthal would have no practical choice but to comply, or just fess up. So, unless we're willing to encroach upon the freedom of the press, the protection of anonymous commenters could not be complete to the degree Mr. Geigner desires.
Now, consider the issue from the perspective of the blogger. I have knowledge that an elected official who is up for re-election, John Huppenthal, is a racist who believes the Holocaust was more the work of Darwin than of Hitler. Should I have no ability to let the public know what Huppenthal is all about? Perhaps, but only if Blog for Arizona and I had guaranteed Mr. Huppenthal that his anonymity would be protected. Otherwise, imposing some sort of legal gag order on bloggers does not seem the way to go.
The bottom line: We don't need to make it any easier for creeps like John Huppenthal to go undetected. A risk of detection is inherent in anonymous speech. Whatever chilling effect arises from the outing of a Huppenthal, a chilling effect that I submit is minor or non-existent, is outweighed by the value to the public of the outing.