Free Speech and Offensive Topix

Yesterday’s New York Times carries a really disturbing story about how small town gossip has migrated to the Web and platforms like Topix. A lot of the content posted is highly personal, nasty, unsubstantiated, and almost certainly libelous. But the subjects of these vicious smears have very little recourse. Web platform providers and ISPs generally can’t be sued for libel, and people can post anonymously to Topix. In fact, they can use different aliases for different posts, so it’s almost impossible to know who’s saying what, or to try to shame anyone into stopping their horrid behavior.

So the posters are hiding behind anonymity and taking advantage of first amendment protections to lash out as much as they like against members of their communities. This is certainly deplorable, and also almost certainly unfixable.

The Supreme Court has clearly ruled that anonymous speech is protected speech in America. A 1995 decision holds that

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.

 This sounds right to me, as does broadly protecting individuals’ speech rights. I think doing so is a big part of what America’s about. So that means, I guess, that I have to accept a lot of noxious content on the Web —  racism and misogyny, nasty and baseless personal attacks, gossip and rumormongering, endless and pointless flame wars, and all the other things that happen when we give industrial strength publishing tools to poorly-formed minds.

Our government has tried pretty hard to stay out of the business of deciding what speech is acceptable, both before and after the fact. This approach has worked pretty well for us and I want it to continue, even as Topix, 4chan /b/ , and other anonymous Internet platforms become popular. I think our society and the Web are both strong enough to withstand the worst that they can legally do.

I’m eager to read the essays collected in The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation to learn what their authors think. What do you think? Does anything happening on the Net these lead you to conclude that we need to rethink our approaches to free speech? And even if we did, is there any workable solution for our global Internet? Leave a comment, please, and let us know what you think.