What part of "free speech" do they not understand?

As M. Simon's last post reminded me of my previous post rant about a "speech code" for the blogosphere, I thought a new post would be in order.

In light of what is a recurrent trend of blaming -- then suing -- bloggers for the words of commenters, I find myself wondering whether the longterm goal here is eventual elimination of anonymous comments -- and possibly, the elimination of online anonymity itself.

As Glenn Reynolds notes, federal law is for now on the side of bloggers:

This statement in the demand letter suggests a lack of familiarity with federal law on the subject: "As the 'publisher' of your blog, you control, and are responsible for, the content appearing in it. References by persons posting to your blog to JL Kirk Associates as 'crooks' and its services as a 'scam' are equally false and defamatory as your own." If, as it seems to be, this is a reference to posts by blog commenters, it appears inconsistent with the Communications Decency Act's immunity provisions. Perhaps, however, I misunderstand the argument.
I think Glenn is being charitable.

The argument in the demand letter reflects the basis of the proposed blogosphere speech code:

....bloggers are responsible for everything that appears on their own pages, including comments left by visitors....
Anonymous comments (and, I think, anonymity in general) are under a two-pronged assault. I think the voluntary "speech codes" of the sort proferred by Tim O'Reilly are (in the overall context) a foot in the door for government regulation.

Of course, regardless of what the courts or the legislature might say, there's also the First Amendment -- which had deep roots in anonymous speech. Considering the Federalist Papers, anonymous free speech was an integral part of the American founding -- and it remains both a tradition and an ongoing heritage.

I can't help wonder whether the assault on anonymity is related to the fact that there's a growing list of taboo words and subjects with real consequences for violating them (such as being fired or sued). Couple this with an emerging generation of people so intimidated by "speech codes" that they find no other way to say what they really think unless they do so anonymously, the fact that they have to speak anonymously is hardly surprising.

Thus, I think the hostility to anonymity (while it may masquerade as opposition to "incivility") reflects a growing intolerance of free speech in general.

Fortunately, it's not as if we live in the European Union, where government censorship is a fact of life. Here, the First Amendment stands squarely in the way of any speech code bureaucracy.

No wonder certain activists and law professors have been talking about abrogating the First Amendment.

posted by Eric on 04.12.07 at 08:30 AM


I have to disagree that they are assaulting anonymity. In fact, I think a lot of what the left pushes as a 'right to privacy' is actually a 'right to be anonymous when I want to be'. What they want more than anything is control of the narrative. If they can force a blogger to delete any comment they consider 'uncivil', they can purge from the online conversation any ideas that run counter to their narrative.

Chris B   ·  April 12, 2007 1:19 PM

I see your point but I think they want both control over the narrative and the end of anonymity. The "speech code" does in fact call for not allowing anonymous comments, and the goal is of course to hold people accountable to an external standard.

It won't work -- at least not here.

Eric Scheie   ·  April 12, 2007 2:11 PM

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