The Wall Street Journal‘s law blog reports that U.S. District Court Judge Christopher F. Droney is allowing two Yale law students to subpoena Internet service providers to determine the identities behind 39 online pseudonyms who posted comments about them on AutoAdmit, an online discussion board.
Although in this particular instance the defendants are less than sympathetic (the comments included allegations that the plaintiffs had sexually transmitted diseases and what could interpreted as threats of rape), the judge should have accorded more weight to the importance of anonymous speech.
As it stands now, the ruling is an affront to the long-standing tradition of anonymous speech in the United States. Anonymous speech has always played a major role in American public discourse, beginning when founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym Publius.
In 1995, the Supreme Court reiterated the importance of anonymous speech, eloquently explaining its vital role in democratic discourse. “Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views,” the Court wrote in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission. “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.”
The Internet was supposed to provide the next generation with unparalleled opportunities for anonymous discourse. As the Supreme Court recognized in Reno v. ACLU, the web offers “a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.” Unfortunately though, judges continue to miss the point in allowing for these subpoenas.