In 1732, Richard Saunders began publishing an almanac filled with humorous sayings and sage advice. Twenty-six editions were published. The book was Poor Richard’s Almanack, and Richard Saunders was, in fact, Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin used many pseudonyms, often creating whole personalities for the “writer.” Among them were Silence Dogood, Caelia Shortface, Martha Careful, Harry Meanwell, Alice Addertongue, Timothy Turnstone, Busy Body, Anthony Afterwit, Polly Baker and Benevolus.
The papers that later became known as The Federalist and The Anti-Federalist were written under pseudonyms. Publius was actually Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. Then there was Agrippa, Brutus, Caesar, Cato, Cincinnatus, Federal Farmer, Harrington, A Landholder, Senex and Sydney, among others.
Anonymous political speech has a rich and storied history in America. Even though the 1st Amendment guarantees the right of all Americans to freely express themselves, the elected class and the 1 percent often object to having the light of truth shined on them. They don’t like it when people express views that make them uncomfortable.
The Internet has provided a new medium for people to express themselves. It’s inexpensive, and it can be fairly anonymous. It’s changing the way people get information. At least one website compares the Internet to the Gutenberg press, which changed the world because it removed control of information from the hands of the elites.
The 1 percent didn’t like that fact then, and they don’t like now. Lawmakers in Illinois are a prime example. A new bill in the State Senate would require anonymous website comment posters to reveal their identities if they want to keep their comments online. Called The Internet Posting Removal Act, it states that a “web site administrator upon request shall remove any comments posted on his or her web site by an anonymous poster unless the anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate.”
The bill, which does not ask for or clarify requirements from entities requesting the comment removal, would take effect 90 days after becoming law.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out:
The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A much-cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:
“Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”
Illinois is not the first State to try and squelch online speech. New York, Tennessee and Arizona have all had laws proposed in their legislatures that would have outed Richard Saunders. Those all failed or were changed before passage. This one must fail as well.