Have you ever written a bad review of a product or service on the internet?  Most people have, and most choose to remain anonymous.  Would you ever expect to have to account for your right to speak your opinion?  More and more frequently in the context of the internet, courts have been grappling with this First Amendment question of the right to speak anonymously.  The United States Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects a person’s right to speak anonymously.  Buckley v. Am. Constitutional Law Found., 525 U.S. 182, 199-200, 119 S.Ct. 636 (1999).  The Supreme Court has also held that the protections of the First Amendment extend to speech on the internet.  Reno v. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844, 870, 117 S.Ct 2329 (1997).

The Court also recognized the important role of anonymous communications in our society’s political and social discourse.  It stated:

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.

McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334, 341-51, 357, 115 S.Ct. 1511 (1995).

The tradition of anonymous speech is older than the United States.  Founders Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym “Publius” and “the Federal Farmer” spoke up in rebuttal.  The right to anonymous speech is also protected well beyond the printed page.  See Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc’y of New York, Inc. v. Vill. of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150, 150, 122 S. Ct. 2080, 2081 (2002) (the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring proselytizers to register their true names with the Mayor’s office before going door-to-door).

These long-standing rights to anonymity and the protections it affords continue to be important in the context of the internet.  The Court has noted the internet offers a powerful democratic forum in which anyone can become a “pamphleteer” or “a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”  Reno v. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. at 870, 117 S. Ct. at 2344.

Our society has embraced the value of free exchange of ideas on the internet,  which is driven to a significant degree by the ability of internet users to communicate anonymously.  Despite the established right to remain anonymous in internet speech, it is not an absolute right.  Our next blog post examines the scope of this right and limitations created by tortious or criminal conduct.

 

Written:  9/22/14

Approved:  10/07/14

Published:  10/13/14

Categories:  Technology, General Litigation

Key Words:  First Amendment; anonymous speech; anonymous internet speech; anonymous review

Title:  First Amendment Right to Speak Anonymously

Description:  A review of the history and importance of the First Amendment right to speak anonymously and the extension of this right to speech on the internet.

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