Patrick Lalley’s report on the plagiarism behind Governor Kristi Noem’s bad-plumber ads reminds us of the importance of anonymity in a one-party regime. His multiple anonymous sources may not have shared information casting the state’s bidding process and Noem’s chosen Ohio marketing firm in a bad light if they had to put their names in public and face possible retribution from the powerful players whom they have embarrassed.
Republican Presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s proposal to ban anonymous speech from the Internet for the sake of national security (quickly watered down to apply only to foreigners) draws further reminders from her critics of why the First Amendment protects anonymity:
The right to anonymous speech goes back to the founding of our country when anonymous pamphleteers made their case for independence. Although not an absolute right, anonymity is bound tightly to the freedom of the press and has proven invaluable to the citizenry, especially the disenfranchised. Haley’s scheme would easily violate certain legal rights to privacy established by the courts (although it should be said that nothing bars private social media outlets, acting on their own, from instituting policies that require users to accurately identify themselves).
…If the Haley ID plan succeeded, what would we lose? Anonymity lends both courage and a measure of safety to speakers who might otherwise fear retaliation from those who are ruffled by raw speech. It protects you personally from getting fired by a boss or doxxed by an angry mob. It promotes the airing of controversial, unpopular speech and promotes debate that might otherwise be suppressed. And it encourages whistleblowing [Jack Shafer, “The Implosion of Nikki Haley’s Social Media Crusade,” Politico, 2023.11.16].
I maintain my own anti-anonymity (nymity is more concise) policy on Dakota Free Press. Like other journalists, I will occasionally base my stories on sources I know who don’t want their names published, but I give no credit or time to information received from anonymous sources who won’t tell me who they are. I apply a similar rule to the comment section: you may participate in the public discussion without publishing your real name, but you need to at least trust me enough to share your name with my via private email confirmation.
Anonymity defenders irked even by my level of resistance to anonymity like to remind us that the Founding Fathers published the Federalist papers anonymously. On the blogs, I see darn little anonymous speech of Federalist/Founder quality; most of my anonymi come across as barroom jerks just looking to throw punches, not advance high ideals or promote debate. Most of the comments this blog receives pose little risk of consequences for their speakers. (Consider: I’ve been commenting nymously online for 18 years, and they haven’t sent me to the camps yet.) Dakota Free Press doesn’t lose much if any value by limiting anonymous commentary. As a private publisher, I’m free to choose what I publish. And even when I check identities, I never use the information I may gain from those checks to harm others.
But under Haley’s much broader, government-imposed ban, democracy would suffer. The government—not just one blogger, but the politically powerful people with cops and tax auditors at their disposal—would have your identity and be able to exact retribution if you spoke against it. I’ve gone to court to defend the First Amendment right to speak anonymously, because anonymous speech does just enough good in honest political discourse to justify its protection.