Slags of Our Fathers

When the founding fathers crafted the Second Amendment, they could never have imagined a world of sub-machine guns and armor-piercing bullets — or so the old argument goes. Likewise, when they guaranteed the right to free speech, they probably weren’t thinking of a global communications network that allowed anyone, anywhere to viciously — and anonymously — slander his fellow American.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, surely the Uzi is no match for the World Wide Web.

This may help explain why a Kentucky lawmaker’s recent proposal to criminalize anonymous commenting on the Web hasn’t elicited quite as much dismissive laughter as one might expect. The bill, submitted March 4 by Republican Rep. Tim Couch to the Kentucky state legislature, would require Web site and forum operators to collect and disclose personal information on anyone leaving a comment. Those who failed to do so would be fined $500 for the first offense, and $1,000 for each subsequent violation.

To be sure, the proposal is given almost no chance of becoming law, and would likely be struck down on First Amendment grounds if it did. But coming in the wake of DDB creative chief Paul Tilley’s suicide — a tragedy some linked to personal attacks on industry blogs — Couch’s bill sparked some rare, earnest soul-searching among the blogerati.

“If you’re willing to say provocative things (and especially if you’re a racist, homophobe, sexist or other variety of … worthless human being), you shouldn’t be able to get away with hiding from your own words like a coward,” wrote Los Angeles-centric blog LAist, noting that its commenters, while free to post anonymously, are first required to register with the site.

Others saw the bill as the first step toward some welcome government intervention online. “I don’t mind seeing legislation outlawing anonymity on the Web,” says Lee Siegel, a New York journalist and author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. “People’s lives have been ruined by cowardly bloggers hiding behind their puerile anonymity.”

Siegel should know. In 2006, he was suspended from The New Republic after using an assumed identity to challenge anonymous critics on the magazine’s blog. The incident inspired him to write his book, which argues that the Internet erodes culture by allowing people to disappear into lives of fantasy and isolation.

“When you hide your words behind a mask, you’re shattering your authenticity, your gagging discourse, you’re inhibiting free speech,” he says. “So in the name of free speech, I think that anonymous comments should be prohibited.”

Still, even Couch acknowledges that the proposed bill is little more than a statement. “The state can try to pass some rules, but I don’t really think it would do anything,” he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. It’s hard to know his thoughts beyond that, because less than a week after introducing the bill, he was already declining requests for comment. Why? Too much negative reaction.

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