AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 2010

In Response   

Banning unsigned online comments undermines the media’s role as a forum for debate.

By Bill Reader
Bill Reader (reader@ohio.edu) is a professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.     

After a Boston editor received complaints about the potential abuse of anonymity in the reader comments he published, he announced that he would collect the writers' real names and make them public if need be. Editors of some other newspapers announced they would do the same.

Detractors quickly decried the idea as antithetical to the principles of press freedom. One writer called the move a "despotic scheme of government"; another said it was an attempt by "our aristocratical gentry" to silence the voice of the common citizen. In the end, Editor Benjamin Russell abandoned his plan and continued to publish unsigned commentary, much of it heated and vitriolic, in his Massachusetts Centinel.

The year was 1787. The opponents to his "real name" policy were the Anti-Federalists. And the debate was over what became the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

I think a lot about Benjamin Russell these days. Angered by the unquestionably vile comments that some (but hardly most) anonymous posters submit to online forums, many journalists, from editors of rural weeklies to Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnists, have decried anonymous forums. The column by AJR Editor and Senior Vice President Rem Rieder ("No Comment," Summer) arguing that anonymous comments should be banned altogether — as they were recently at the Buffalo News and Pennsylvania's Reading Eagle — very well may represent the majority sentiment among professional journalists.

I see and in many ways share the concerns about abusive anonymous posts. In fact, I embraced Rieder's opinion when I was a few years out of J-school and working at a newspaper that had an anonymous call-in forum that many of my colleagues and I found repugnant. Several years later, I decided to study the issue for my master's thesis. I dived into the literature, hoping to show that the crafters of the First Amendment would not support anonymous comments. Then I read about the Massachusetts Centinel and similar accounts from that period.

The more I researched the history of American news media, the more I realized that our profession's disdain for anonymous commentary is built upon a myth. Anonymity isn't anathema to American democracy; in fact, anonymous speech is exactly what the framers of the First Amendment had in mind. On a philosophical level, anonymity allowed opinions to be considered on their own merits, without regard for who was stating them; on a practical level, it gave people a way to disagree with leaders without getting beaten and/or thrown in jail.

Through much of history, American newspapers honored those principles by publishing anonymous and pseudonymous comments. "Must sign" policies became widespread only in the 1950s and 1960s. Editors argued that requiring signatures would improve the quality of letters to the editor. As one argued in The Masthead in 1968, doing so would likely deter "haters and hollerers from cluttering up the column and scaring off other writers."

Ironically, the "must sign" policies themselves appear to have done the scaring off. A national survey Ohio University conducted in 2003 found that, among people who had never written letters to the editor, more than a third of women and nearly half of non-whites said they would write letters if their names would not be published. That opinion was also expressed by large percentages of city dwellers, people with annual incomes below $25,000, and adults aged 18 to 44. Those are voices that, arguably, were silenced by the "must sign" policies applied to letters to the editor. I believe they will be silenced again if the industry embraces the current campaign to ban anonymous comments online, too.

In an era when the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not apply to public employees who point out the mistakes of their superiors, and people can lose their jobs for making statements that somebody might construe as "disrespectful," real people with serious opinions need anonymity to exercise their most basic democratic rights: to dissent, to criticize, to advocate and to debate controversies. If journalists try to silence the "haters and hollerers" by banning anonymous comments online, they also will silence the poor, the vulnerable and the dispossessed. Such a ban would represent a drastic overreaction.

As Rieder points out, anonymity is misused by some, and egregiously so. But anonymity isn't the problem; lack of editing is. There are ways to curb abuses in the forums, whether using high-tech solutions or good old-fashioned editing.

We in the Fourth Estate should be defenders and practi-tioners of the First Amendment. We should temper our professional disdain with a realization that, on the whole, anonymity is the one true cultural equalizer, and that it is what the First Amendment was meant to protect all along.