In a 1997 decision, a federal district court inGeorgia invalidated a state law criminalizinganonymous and pseudonymous Internet com-munications.
In so doing, the court issued adecision consistent with centuries of Americantradition and jurisprudence. Throughout thehistory of this country, pseudonymous andanonymous authors have made a rich contribu-tion to political discourse. Had the court heldany other way, it would have fallen into the com-mon trap of treating the Internet as sui generis,unrelated to any prior communications media.Instead, the court correctly recognized that thereis no distinction to be drawn between anony-mous communications on the “Net” and in aleaflet or a book.
Unfortunately, the threats to anonymousNet discourse have continued to proliferatesince the Georgia decision. U.S. and foreignlaw enforcement authorities continue toregard anonymity as a threat to public order.Various pending proposals would encourage,or mandate, changes to the infrastructure of the Net that would eliminate it as a mediumfor anonymous discourse.
Anonymity and Pseudonymity,Cornerstones of Free Speech
Controversial and thought-provokingspeech has frequently been issued fromunder the cover of anonymity by writers whofeared prosecution or worse if their identitieswere known.
, an influentialseries of essays about freedom of speech andpolitical liberty first appearing in 1720, werewritten by two British men, John Trenchardand Thomas Gordon, under the pseudonym“Cato.”
had a wide following inAmerica:
Benjamin Franklin and numerouscolonial newspapers reprinted the letters;John Adams and Thomas Jefferson bothquoted Cato.
“In the history of political lib-erty as well as of freedom of speech and press,no 18th-century work exerted more influ-ence than
,” historian LeonardLevy has written.
In 1735, John Peter Zenger was arrestedfor seditious libel for publishing pseudony-mous essays by Lewis Morris, JamesAlexander, and others attacking New York governor William Cosby.
Zenger, a Germanprinter who immigrated to the United States,also republished several of
.Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia defendedZenger. In his stirring oration to the jury, heasked them to lay “a foundation for securingto ourselves, our posterity, and our neigh-bors” the right of “exposing and opposingarbitrary power . . . by speaking and writingtruth.”
The jury’s acquittal of Zenger helpedto end common law prosecutions of American writers and publishers underBritish common law.Thomas Paine’s
, acclaimedas the work that first sparked Americans tothink of separating from Britain, was firstpublished signed simply “An Englishman.”
Perhaps equally famous, Alexander Hamilton,John Jay, and James Madison wrote
under the joint pseudonym“Publius.”
They were answered by the Anti-Federalists, who wrote under such names as“A Federal Farmer” (Richard Henry Lee),
“Candidus” (Samuel Adams),
and evenanother “Cato” (Gov. George Clinton).
In the following century, as the tensionsbetween North and South mounted, many writ-ers on the volatile issue of slavery also shieldedthemselves behind pseudonymous identities.
For example, “A Colored Baltimorean”
wrotethat black people considered themselvesAmerican and desired to live in America inequality. “Communipaw” wrote about black economic and social life and about racial preju-dice among white abolitionists.
Women aboli-tionists writing pseudonymously included“Magawisca”
who suggestedthat abolitionists should confront inequalitywithin their own movement.Pseudonymity has continued to play animportant role in political speech in this cen-tury. George Kennan, a high-ranking memberof the staffs of General George C. Marshall
Throughout thehistory of thiscountry, pseudon-ymous andanonymousauthors havemade a rich con-tribution to polit-ical discourse.