Many of the voices that have echoed most loudly in history are those without a name attached. Frankenstein was first published anonymously. Three founding fathers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — wrote the federalist papers under the pen name “Publius.” And the British street artist that goes by the name “Banksy” has sold his works for up to $20 million.
Even the more subtle voices, like that of the legendary Watergate informant Deep Throat, have played pivotal roles by holding those in power accountable.
Anonymous and pseudonymous speech has long been an important right belonging to US citizens, although it has taken a different form in a digital world. Now, anyone can create a false social media profile and deliberately use their hidden guises to troll, catfish or even threaten others.
But despite its flaws and inherent complexities, protecting this type of speech is important.
In his article “Publius and the Petition: Do v. Reed and the History of Anonymous Speech,” lawyer Chesa Boudin noted that there are multiple reasons why a writer would want to remain anonymous, but two in particular stand out: retaliation and source bias.
When writers want to speak out about a sensitive topic — whether that be about politics or an injustice that they’ve witnessed — but fear being singled out, threatened or ridiculed for doing so, they often choose to keep their names anonymous.
Additionally, writings or opinions can stand by themselves and not in the shadow of the author’s name if delivered anonymously.
Under Britain’s watchful eye in the colonial era, American patriots circulated their plans for revolution disguised as important documents like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” that helped fuel the revolution.
Later, after the war had ended, newspapers from all across the US printed a large number of writings from unknown sources, although the practice spawned much debate and criticism within the states.
While the federalists and anti-federalists were debating the merits of the new constitution in 1787, the printer of the Boston Massachusetts Centinel named Benjamin Russell said he would not publish an anti-federalist piece written by “Lucius,” unless Lucius would step forward and tell Russell who he was. The resulting conflict, largely between federalists and anti-federalists, debated the merits of protecting an author’s identity.
Some, like a citizen who responded to the Massachusetts Gazette on Oct. 16, 1787, believed that every printer who adopted this rule would be a “true patriot,” because “no one can rationally object to have his name known.” Yet a fellow calling himself “Solon” responded in the Boston Independent Chronicle by saying, “A spirit of investigation, and a freedom, and independence of sentiments, should never be checked in a free country, on the most momentous occasions.”
It is with Solon’s side that I agree, although I understand that technological advances have dramatically altered the landscape for this issue. Without anonymity, journalists like myself would find it harder to play the role of the watchdog and hold powerful institutions accountable.
Yet social media platforms have become the gatekeepers of information, eliminating the process that the printer typically would play in selecting which anonymous statements are published and which are not.
Instead, the users hold direct power over what they post, and with great power comes great responsibility. Although some use their platforms for noble purposes, others use them to spread deliberately false, harmful and toxic messages with ill-intent.
But the benefits of anonymous speech outweigh the risks, even when it comes to social media. By masking their identities, the voices, often unheard, from minorities can be allowed into the marketplace of ideas, where they can either become the talk of the town or lost and forgotten to history.
As Editor in Chief of the Mirror, I have always learned to be cautious and deliberate when considering the use of anonymous sources. I won’t grant anonymity for most of my stories, unless it is legally required by federal laws like HIPA or if the use of a name would put a person’s safety or occupation at risk. This isn’t a policy that the myself or other members of the Mirror staff are likely to change anytime soon, but it’s one that has been made with a lot of thought put behind it.
When it comes to speech, names don’t and shouldn’t always matter. The ideas and information presented remain fundamental parts of public conversation. All voices should be heard, even those who have compelling reasons not to reveal themselves. These voices created America, and they will continue to shape it in the years to come.
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