The problem of thin-skinned politicos

The problem of thin-skinned politicos
By Declan McCullagh
03/06/2006

A New Jersey politician is hoping to outlaw anonymous speech on the Internet, claiming that civility must be mandatory in political debate.

State Assemblyman Peter J. Biondi, a Republican from Somerset County, recently introduced legislation that would require any "public forum Web site" to solicit the legal name and addresses of everyone who can post messages to it.

What irks Biondi, a top Republican in the state assembly, is the political free-for-all that has grown around the New Jersey Star-Ledger's discussion site at NJ.com. The site's forum for Somerset County--that is, Biondi's home district--is home to a slew of pseudonymous posts that tend to be less than kind to local politicians.

When news reports revealed that Somerset County Sheriff Frank Provenzano appropriated more than $5,000 from a petty cash account to pay for his dry cleaning, the NJ.com posts were not flattering. One message from "nodoubletalk" called Provenzano a "thief, plain and simple," while one from "xyzzy" quipped: "That's what we get for voting Republican."

Another local flap involved Stephen Obal, the Bridgewater, N.J. police chief criticized for spending two hours a day at the department's gym when he should have been at work. On NJ.com, "frenchtoast2" called Obal and the mayor "masters of deception, partners in corruption."

Others on NJ.com have taken potshots at Biondi himself, chafing at what "glennvl" labeled the assemblyman's "arrogance."

Those remarks violate Biondi's sense of political propriety. "What it's turned into is people just bashing each other, name-calling, personal issues, that kind of thing," Biondi's chief of staff, Scott Ross, told me on Friday. "It's all anonymous. Nobody knows who's calling who what."

The intent of the legislation is "to try to bring back a little civility back into that kind of thing," Ross said. "It's degenerating into name-calling. It's a local problem we're having, in several cities."

Sage advice from Jefferson?
It's true that some of the comments in the Somerset County and Hillsborough County forums are impolite. Many are impolitic. Others are helpful, offering other county residents advice about road closings, good brunch locations, and where to find bars with karaoke nights.

In other words, NJ.com is your average Internet discussion site with a lively community that's grown over time. Sometimes it's useful, and sometimes it's straightforward politician-bashing--which serves a useful purpose of its own.

Targeting Net-anonymity
A New Jersey state assemblyman has introduced a bill targeting anonymous speech on Internet discussion groups. Here's an excerpt:

"The operator of any interactive computer service or an Internet service provider shall establish, maintain and enforce a policy to require any information content provider who posts written messages on a public forum Web site either to be identified by a legal name and address, or to register a legal name and address with the operator of the interactive computer service or the Internet service provider...

"An operator of an interactive computer service or an Internet service provider shall establish and maintain reasonable procedures to enable any person to request and obtain disclosure of the legal name and address of an information content provider who posts false or defamatory information about the person on a public forum Web site."
That doesn't mean Biondi's bill is a good idea. It isn't.

Biondi wants to require that anyone "who posts written messages on a public forum Web site" be identified "by a legal name and address" that is either disclosed publicly or kept on file. The measure also outlaws "false" posts on the Web and permits anyone upset by such posts to recover punitive damages and attorney's fees.

This, of course, violates the First Amendment. In the landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court said that false statements about politicians were permitted, as long as they weren't made with "actual malice." Anonymous speech is also protected, going back to the Federalist Papers and the 1735 trial of printer John Peter Zenger.

Bondi's bill also follows the unfortunate precedent of the recent federal law I wrote about in a column in January that criminalizes posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing one's true identity. (That law is being challenged in court by TheAnonymousEmail.com.)

A third problem with Bondi's approach is that by requiring people to type in their "legal names" and addresses, legitimate political criticism will be squelched. (That may be precisely the point.) Local politics is particularly nasty, and reprisals are hardly unknown.

More broadly, though, politics is no place for the thin-skinned. Civility enforced by law may sound pleasant enough--but rude, insulting, and downright nasty debate has characterized American politics since the very beginning.

In a 1799 letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote that he had "been a constant butt for every shaft of calumny which malice and falsehood could form, and the presses, public speakers, or private letters disseminate."

Another letter that Jefferson sent to a judge six years later said: "You have indeed received the federal unction of lying and slandering. But who has not? Who will ever again come into eminent office, unanointed with this chrism?"

Today's politicians are not of Jefferson's stature. That should be all the more reason to preserve our right to criticize them freely, thoroughly and anonymously.  


Comments (1)

e. mason
Said this on 3-8-2006 At 07:53 am
Even Ben Franklin wrote under pseudonym. Some of the reasons being the very ones you mention.

New comments are currently disabled.

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