Here's Why Thomas F. O'Mara and Dean Murray Want To Ban Anonymous Online Speech
Earlier today, the Voice brought you news of pending legislation in Albany that would make New York-based websites, such as blogs and newspapers, "remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post."
For state Sen. Thomas F. O'Mara and Assemblyman Dean Murray, the gist of the would-be law is to prevent cyber-bullying.
Murray does not think that this violates free speech or presents constitutional concerns.
"It absolutely in no way infringes on anyone's rights. They are absoltuely free to say whatever they like. However, if the statement is challenged by the target or the victim of those statements, they have two options. They can either identify themselves or put their name to the statement, or the statement will be removed. This is not reinventing the the wheel. This has been the standard letter-to-the-editor policy that has been in place for hundreds of years," Murray told the Voice.
He said that the law would only apply to factual concerns, not opinions.
"This only kicks in if the statement is challenged and it's only challenged based on factual information...It is the victim that has to reach out."
Asked whether this could be abused by people posing as victims -- since no ID requirement is in place to prove that alleged victims are who they say they are -- he said: "Most people are pretty busy. Most people don't have the time to troll through websites. This is absolutely no different than the letter to the editor policy to a newspaper. I talked with a couple of newspaper editors themselves and asked them, and they said this seems to mirror our letter to the editor policy."
Asked which editors, he replied: "I'm going to leave that to them."
Under this proposed law, website admins would have 48 hours to reach out to a post's author. It's unclear at this time what the penalty for non-compliance would be.
Again questioned whether this could infringe upon First Amendment rights, Murray explained: "The First Amendment applies to United States citizens. If it's an anonymous poster and it's the World Wide Web, how do we know this protects a person's First Amendment rights, because how do we even know they're an American citizen? I'm saying that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but if they're anonymous, we have absolutely no idea who they are. How can we protect an anonymous person?"
O'Mara said of free speech issues: "We'll be evaluating these concerns."
"We're trying to deal with cyber-bullying and the false accusations that get posted on blogs that we see quite regularly. We're certainly going to evaluate that and look at it -- it's all part of the legislative process. If there's an unintended consequence, or a constitutional infirmity, we'll certainly look at it. I take input from everyone seriously, as long as it's in a constructive fashion and not an obnoxious fashion -- because we get both kinds."
But would the law even be effective if it only applies to Empire State companies?
"There certainly would be limitations because it would be limited to New York, websites or blogs that are hosted by an entity in New York, but that's a basic limitation of any law that we pass in New York."
We still wondered: Would a measure like this even be Constitutional?
Jethro Lieberman, a Constitutional rights expert and faculty member at New York Law School, doesn't think so.
"That poses problems," he said. "I would like to see an argument -- and I haven't seen one -- that would authorize a legislature to determine what can be posted or not posted on a private website."
Asked whether anonymity affected this, Lieberman had this to say: "The constitution does not talk about websites or anonymity. The cases over the years suggest that the legislature has no business trying to tell editors what to print."
Also: "The analogy here is that if somebody wrote a letter to the Village Voice and the person said, 'I don't want my name to be used,' there's no doubt that you could decide not to run the person's name. It's the same issue."
We're going to keep looking into this at the Voice. Check back for updates.
Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.