Anonymous comments?

An interesting article in today’s Journal Gazette about free speech and anonymous comments.  Some excerpts:

Web free-for-all tests free speech rights
By Marc Fisher who is a columnist for the Washington Post’s Metro section.

[…] Maryland’s highest court this month decided that anonymous comments on Web message boards have and deserve extraordinary protection. Someone who wants to sue you for anonymous libel must step into the mosh pit of the comment boards and try to persuade you to come forward, because the courts will not tell a Web site to reveal your identity.

That’s great news for folks who get their jollies venting on comment boards, and it’s a nice protection for those who have serious information to put out there but fear retaliation if they attach their names to their message. 

[…] Judge Sally Adkins and two other judges argue that the free-for-all atmosphere created by anonymous comments encourages more harmful speech than any other medium in history.

“This ‘anything goes’ mind-set, coupled with the virtually unlimited circulation available to bloggers at minimal cost, heightens the danger of injury … from false or exaggerated statements,” she writes. “I would venture to guess that on the Internet, defamation occurs more frequently and is broadcast to more people than via any other medium, past or present. With this in mind, I am reluctant to set additional barriers” against suits to protect a reputation.

Look at the case from the perspective of Zebulon Brodie, owner of the doughnut shop. He doesn’t know who his accuser is – a disgruntled employee, a legitimate customer, his mother-in-law? Shouldn’t he have the right to confront his accuser?

The majority opinion, by Judge Lynne Battaglia, says an aggrieved party first must go on the message board to let the anonymous commenter know that the slammee is ticked off and seeks justice. Then the target of the comment must identify the offending statements and persuade the court that the statements constitute defamation. Only then does the court weigh the claim of defamation against the commenter’s First Amendment right to speak his mind.

[…] Protecting anonymous speech is one of American law’s most noble ventures. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens once wrote, “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation … the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure.”

A post on a comment board might have far greater reach than a sign on a lawn or a shout in a public square, but the same theory applies. There will be painful episodes along the way, but making an aggrieved party first submit proof that he has been damaged by an anonymous comment is a good way to protect the rights of those who have something to say.

If anonymous writings are such good things, then why don’t newspaper reporters write anonymously?  Of most of the important writings in history that I can think of off the top of my head, I can’t seem to remember any that I cannot also name the author.  It is important to know the source if nothing else for evaluation purposes.

What do you think about anonymous comments on blogs and websites?


  1. I prefer a writer to identify themselves. Even a pseudonym is better than anonymous. I believe the practice of a reporter using a byline was for the reporters benefit as well as the reader and that practice should also continue online.

  2. I think that a great deal of credibility is lost when the poster in anonymous. That is why I used my real name- I am not bashful or ashamed of my thoughts.

  3. And here is another to add to the agreement train. I have always used my full name – even on site from other areas of the state or the country.

    I do have a comment though on the issue of the First Amendment in the context of the internet. The prohibition of interfering with free speech and free press is aimed at government action. The First Amendment addresses actions by Congress – not private individuals – and these governmental actions were later made applicable against the states through the 14th Amendment.

    I think this why the court is making it so difficult to get “behind the scenes” to ferret out someone – a private individual – who has allegedly committed defamation. Defamation is a form of speech that is not protected by the first amendment, so the commentator may be subject to legal action.

    We usually don’t run into this issue with the news media since they must publish their names with their articles. The internet creates an atmosphere where people really say or write just about anything, and most of the legal issues that will be raised will be in the area of libel (written defamation) or slander (spoken defamation).

  4. Robert:

    Having credibility is not to be confused with defaming someone. A commentator’s credibility will differ from one person to another. For example, I don’t think Rush Limbaugh has credibility, but many thousands of his listeners do. I think Al Gore has credibility, but thousands of others would disagree with me.

    Are movie and rock stars credible spokespersons for humanitarian causes?

    Defamation is “the communication of a statement that makes a false claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image.” (Wikipedia)

    I don’t believe that credibility is an issue when determining whether something has been defamatory. It is the result as perceived by those who receive the communication of the statement that matters not the credibility of the person who said or wrote it.

    While it would be nice to think that everyone could dissect and analyze internet information, we know it just isn’t true.

    How else would you explain all the misinformation (some of it absolutely ridiculous) that flew around this country in the last election?


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