The idea of writing about someone without identifying yourself has become the subject of Polk County discussions in recent weeks as it became publicly known that the Polk County Sheriff’s Office issued seven subpoenas to root out the identities of bloggers on Topix.
The unknown bloggers were writing about rumored affairs, Sheriff Kelly McLendon, and the loss of morale within the department.
The sheriff’s investigation was one element leading to the firing of one of it’s deputies, Johnny Moats, according to court documents filed in the federal civil case involving his termination and that of another deputy, Barry Henderson.
Dr. Brian Carroll, associate professor of journalism in the Department of Communications at Berry College, said his research proves that anonymous blogging is a protected free speech right and should be completely protected under the U.S. Constitution.
“I think it’s really important to remember that the First Amendment is designed to protect speech that harms, or it cannot have any real purpose at all,” Carroll said.
He said it’s an important topic because 55 percent of bloggers use pseudonyms according to a 2006 survey.
Carroll, who has done extensive research on the subject for a paper he is publishing, said many court cases back up the belief that anonymous writers help keep the government in check.
He said Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 Supreme Court case, could be used to condemn McLendon’s actions into uncovering the bloggers’ identities.
Carroll said the court decision stated there is “a profound national commitment to the principal that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
“The sheriff would be wise to brush up on this case,” Carroll said, “and then subsequently to apologize to residents of Polk County for abusing his office and ignoring such a well-known precedent.”
Carroll also quoted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who said in McIntyre v. Ohio Election in 1995 “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”
Justice John Paul Stevens agreed stating that anonymous speech allows the dissenting, the disenfranchised, and the disempowered to air their views without fear of retaliation, according to Carroll’s research.
Stevens also states that people should be given credit to discern what is in an anonymous statement.
“People are intelligent enough to evaluate the source of an anonymous writing,” he said, adding that they can decide the truth for themselves based on the message.
Carroll said the mode of transmitting an anonymous message shouldn’t matter.
“That the anonymous expression is blogged makes no difference,” Carroll said. “A blog is not unlike a pen.”
“We shouldn’t be distracted by the medium or the technology.
Carroll said there are several court tests to balance free expression with the right to protect your good name.
“The magistrate judge, in this instance, seemingly ignored these tests and, therefore, the right to anonymous speech,” he said.
Carroll said America’s history is proof that anonymous writings are woven throughout this country’s tapestry.
A number of people, including six presidents, 15 cabinet members, twenty senators, and 34 congressmen, published anonymous political writings or used pen names between 1789 and 1809.
Many 19th century authors published under pen names, including Mark Twain, O. Henry and George Eliot.
Carroll’s research showed anonymous letters to the editor were common in early American newspapers and continued to be printed until well into the 20th century.
The professor said, while the Founding Fathers could not have predicted the Internet, they did create a flexible document in the Constitution in which principles could be applied to modern society.
“I think the lone blogger is not unlike the ‘lonely pamphleteer’ passing out leaflets on the colonial street corner that James Madison spoke of when advocating ratification of the First Amendment,” Carroll said