Thursday, February 21, 2019

Anonymous political speech as free speech, and campaign financing reform; could there be a conflict?



Matt Christiansen, in 2017, had made a video explaining the importance of anonymous speech as free speech. It ought to be viewed now. 





Christiansen made the video in part on a CNN broadcast that had maintained that maybe anonymous speech should not be protected, because we don’t know how its broadcast was paid for. That’s an idea inherited from previous controversies about campaign finance reform, discussed here before. 

Free speech, he says, is not based on your identity, at least publicly. Electronic Frontier Foundation has often defended anonymous speech based on the importance of anonymity or pseudonymity as an antidote to the potential tyranny of the majority or mob.

I can certainly remember how it was three or four decades ago, when people were afraid to be seen on television when marching in gay pride parades or at gay rights meetings or even at MCC. 

Yet, today, protesting or marching in large mass events is in practice the most important example of speech that is not supposed to be traceable to your own personal identity – or is it – because you feel proud or determined enough to be seen and photographed – but it also means you feel some solidarity or belonging to a group or tribe that believes it is oppressed. 

I have, however, turned Christiansen’s idea around.  Starting in the late 1990s, when I self-published my first DADT book and set up my first websites, I was very proud to use my own individual speech as my own brand.  That was partly because of the unusual issue of the centerpiece of my own activism – the gays in the military issue, and how it intermingled with my own personal history rather like an occluded front in meteorology. My treating this way would indeed have a future permanent impact on my own reputation, and I wanted that.  It had the potential to set up “conflicts of interest”.
  
Christiansen gives some good examples of anonymous speech with leaflets in the past – starting with the Federalist papers, and then with Benjamin Franklin’s pseudonyms. 

I’ll add that I used my nickname “Bill” based on the legal middle name of “William” for my books – which might create a trademark issue some day, or even issues with domain names, but at the time was used this way because “Bill” was how I was known publicly.  

I did intended to become a public figure and understood the legal consequences if anyone ever defamed me (see remarks about Clarence Thomas, yesterday’s post). (Yet, Wikipedia says I still don’t have or haven’t had enough “notability”. )

Where anonymity runs into a problem now is indeed with political speech – because we’re seeing additional concerns return in accounting for how it was paid for.  The “low barrier to entry” for speech compared to the past seems democratizing. But it could unintentionally give people with more resources and more money to have more influence on policy decisions.  That’s why I’m concerned about personal sites offering opinions on political issues that don’t seem clear as to how they were funded.  This will become an issue again, and contradict our respect for anonymous speech. 
  
But anonymous speech is supposed to be unbranded.  Still, is it OK to have a political website, use a pseudonym, and reveal nothing about your resources?

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