Monday, March 06, 2006

Anonymous Speech

It is cases like this that make me wish I was a lawyer.
The New Jersey legislature is considering a bill that would require operators of public forums to collect users' legal names and addresses, and effectively disallow anonymous speech on online forums. This raises some serious issues, such as to what extent local and state governments can go in enacting and enforcing Internet legislation.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) I am unable to peruse through existing case law and construct a compelling argument about how this would be unconstitutional. To my lay-person's view it certainly seems that the Constitution protects anonymous speech, after all anyone can pick up a pen and send off a letter to the editor and have it published in any number of media sources.

Instead I’ll have to attempt persuade against such a measure on the simple unenforceability of the proposed legislation. Unless every forum in the lovely state of New Jersey requires users to present a credit card – which is only a proxy for identity, and certainly not foolproof – there is no way to confirm identity remotely. Such a proposal would have a chilling effect on the culture of the internet where people that, rightly or wrongly, fear expressing their opinions in a public forum due to repercussions in the real world.

Certainly the internet is full of know-nothing blowhards, so is every other forum where people are allowed to speak freely, I’m unconvinced that the internet deserves special restrictions. Content providers are perfectly capable of moderating the speech on their own forums, and many do so. Additionally, if there are legitimate criminal concerns about illegal speech or speech that predicates a crime it is not impossible to track individuals if one has enough resources. More than likely the speech that they are attempting to regulate would just move to another forum – whether to a state that doesn’t provide such draconian measures or another medium entirely would remain to be seen.

I’m not quite sure what problem New Jersey is attempting to solve, but their solution will only stem the flow of legitimate speech and do nothing to catch or deter illegitimate speech.

Update: Kip stopped by and pointed me to an online article on anonymous internet speech, an interesting read if you want to aquaint yourself with the law as opposed to my ramblings.

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