Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Right to Anonymity

March 26th, 2011, Promulgated by Ben Anderson

A reader tipped me off to this Dave Armstrong article on anonymity.  Yes, I use my real name here, but will defend to my death our pseudonymous writers right to anonymity.

The famous jurist, Benjamin Cardozo, once said, freedom of speech and thought is “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” An inherent aspect of that freedom is the right to anonymity which is also a function of freedom of association. While anonymity may help one to avoid responsibility or accountability for the content of one’s speech, it also reduces the possibility of identification and fear of reprisal for those engaging in legitimate, but unpopular speech. Anonymity also provides a way for a writer who may be personally unpopular to ensure that readers will not prejudge his message simply because they do not like its proponent.

For example, Charles Carroll, a Catholic and one of our country’s founding fathers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote under the pseudonym “First Citizen” to lend a powerful voice for the cause of independence from Great Britain and to challenge oppression of Catholics in Maryland because prior to the American Revolution, both Maryland and British law prohibited Catholics from entering the legal profession or engaging in politics. Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams also wrote using pseudonyms to advance the cause of independence. After the war, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, under the collective pseudonym, “Publius,” wrote a series of essays, known as “The Federalist Papers”, in their successful campaign to obtain the ratification of the American Constitution. During the Civil War, several individuals known as “Copperheads” used pseudonyms in the North to advocate against Abraham Lincoln’s policies and his suspension of habeas corpus. Later, in the past century, American courts have recognized the right to engage in anonymous speech has been extended to members of unions, radical political groups, as well as civil rights activists. As noted by the Supreme Court in the case of Talley vs. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960):
Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures, and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.

Despite occasional dissent, anonymous communication in our society has been traditionally regarded as sacrosanct. So much so that even when the anonymous writer publishes or otherwise disseminates perceived untruths, such is not a ground for violating this aspect of the right of free speech unless such constitutes either criminal or tortious conduct.

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4 Responses to “Right to Anonymity”

  1. avatar Diane Harris says:

    Great posting, Ben. And the link as well. It is a salient point to consider in each situation whether to be anonymous or not. If we don’t use our right to anonymity the facebook trivia might make it harder in practice to use the right. I am glad that we have secrecy in our ballots, but can choose to drive a car with our candidate’s bumper sticker. I’m glad we can go to confession either behind the screen or face to face. It takes discernment in each situation to choose. I will go anonymous where my opinion is all I have to contribute (i.e. too busy to get more involved) or where I might endanger others. I think with some of the secular retaliation inthe news, people taking visible positions pro-life or against gay unions do take more risk than, say, an opinion on music or art.

    I’m glad that so many early Christians didn’t just come willy-nilly out of the Catacombs, but also glad that some were willing to witness with their lives. Inside the Church, as I have been publicly involved and taking a stand on matters in which wildly liberal bishops or pastors display dissident actions, I have also witnessed fear on the part of the faithful; fear that if they express a strong opinion their child might not be permitted to make First Communion, or their grandmother might be denied a Funeral Mass. Silly? yes for those who are called to witness, but not to the victim of fear. People need ways to take little baby steps into experiencing the power of Truth. Kudos for putting the subject on the table. Diane

  2. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    Thanks for those comments, Diane. I just came across this comic and I was tempted to put it in its own post, but decided to stick it here instead. I thought it was funny.

  3. avatar Snowshoes says:

    Thank you, “Ben” 😉
    And sadly, Diane, having also had to take a public stand, sometimes literally at Mass, many people have said they feared the “staff” of the parish. I’m sure you would agree that while it is silly for a confirmed Catholic to worry about being denied certain sacraments, etc., when they see the angry reaction of the staff to those who would dare to take issue with seriously disobedient behavior, their hesitance is logical. I always have put my name to necessary correspondence to the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities when addressing specific concerns, as we all should.

  4. Thanks for posting, Ben. I routinely get criticism for allowing anonymous blog comments at SavingOurParish. It does get ugly and sometimes I have to turn on comment moderation and very occasionally delete a comment, but the level of fear of retribution from staff, and worry over strained relationships is partly what allows wrongdoing to flourish in our parishes. In the musical film version of Camelot, there is a scene where King Arthur begins to internalize the truth that ‘Right makes might’ not ‘Might makes right’. The truth, spoken often and loudly (whether anonymous or not) is a great cleanser. Thanks again.


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