Blogger's rights, Part 1 of 2: Consequences of anonymous blogging are unpredictable at present
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: September 15, 2009
As we predicted, blogging has grown up. The simple format known as the weblog has morphed into a powerful social and political platform complete with bells, whistles and widgets. Millions of bloggers around the world express opinions each day about everything from herbal tea to Brad Pitt. Quite naturally a few problems were bound to occur, and a conversation in the blogosphere at present has to do with anonymity. Questions abound. Kay B. Day
Is it fair to permit a blogger to remain anonymous if he or she insults someone? Glam model Liskula Cohen recently succeeded in getting Google to reveal the name of the 'Skanks in NYC' blogger. The blogger allegedly called the model a 'skank' and 'maligned her.' Google cooperated in response to an order from a Manhattan Supreme Court judge. An identical situation happened in Jacksonville (Fla.) when an anonymous blogger decided to criticize a very large church he belonged to. The critic was unmasked and the church promptly kicked him out of the congregation.
There are numerous other cases, including Pittgirl, the author of the blog 'That's Church.' Pittgirl got 'dooced,' or fired, because of her blog. The term 'dooced' grew from the blog 'Dooce,' by the way, where the author used her real name but lost her job once her employer read her posts.
Opinions on anonymity are divided. I've had many conversations with professional writers, and there is no consensus. On the one hand, a target theoretically should be able to confront his accuser. On the other hand, anonymity, if we base conclusions on court decisions, appears to be protected under rights to freedom of speech established in the U.S. Constitution. Obviously, courts have ruled both ways.
There is no doubt the Federalist Papers, written under pen names, influenced the outcome of the Republic. Memorial Hall Statue of James Madison photo by Walker K. Hancock. Library of Congress James Madison Building, Washington, D.C.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation stands firmly in the camp of rights to anonymity. EFF said, "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 US Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized rights to speak anonymously derived from the First Amendment."
The issue has even made its way into fiction. Novelist Patricia Cornwell places an anonymous, mean-spirited blogger in the position of antagonist in her 2008 novel, Scarpetta. All the action in the novel stems from a gossip blog whose author attacks Cornwell's hero, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
Blogs used as attack mechanisms raise the issue of anonymity to a new level because we all know what's on the Net stays on the Net. But we must admit to ourselves whistleblowers may sometimes have anonymity as their only option in bringing important issues to the public eye. Also important is the issue of making a simple comment in response to an article you read. Do you have a right to anonymity if you respond in anger to another writer's political commentary or if you respond with praise about a product that may be manufactured where you happen to work?
It's important to acknowledge the gains vs. the risks inherent in writing anonymously. Not everyone loses if their identity is revealed. Some have gone on to greater things—a New York City waiter who harped on his customers via a blog but went on to get a book deal, for example. If you're writing anonymously to expose a public danger, most would see that as laudable. But if you're doing so as a weapon for character assassination, a court will more than likely not be sympathetic.
Blogs continue to proliferate and criticism will surely multiply. Considering past decisions by courts, there's no way to tell exactly how a case may be decided. You alone must decide whether the potential gain is worth the risk. There's the law. And there's reality. Sometimes the two seem incompatible.
Skanks for the Memories [PC World]
Commentary on the Liskula Cohen case.
Anonymity [Electronic Frontier Foundation]
Statement about anonymity in relation to the First Amendment.
The coming out stories of anonymous bloggers [CNN]
Shared experiences of risk-taking bloggers.
Ethics in online journalism [Web Savvy, The Writer]
A look at ethics and the new journalism.
--Posted September 15, 2009
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In our next Web Savvy, we analyze a subject currently under consideration by the Federal Trade Commission—blogger disclosure. Should you tell if you're being paid to write about a product, and what happens if you don't?
|Kay B. Day|
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.