The idea that holding people accountable for their words chills open discussion is nonsense. It destroys open discussion. The First Amendment was not conceived as a protection of cowardice and insidiousness. Those speakers who fear responses to their words and wish to throw missiles and cower behind a mangled First Amendment, we cite another cliche: if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Or in the language of the blogosphere, if you can't take responsibility for your words, just STFU. Communication involves a message from a sender to a receiver and back again. An interpretation of the First Amendment that protects anonymous speech is an interpretation that subverts the whole idea of robust dialogue [David Newquist, "An Identity Crisis," Northern Valley Beacon, 2010.02.07].
I agree with every line in that passage. I've been running my comment section since May on similar principles, deciding that the cowardliness and invidiousness of anonymous comments outweighed their occasional value. If you won't put your name to your words, your words aren't important enough to publish.
Yet I disagree with Dr. Newquist's thesis that I am standing up for the right to defame anonymously. I recognize no such right. Neither do the courts. However, I do not recognize the state's authority to dragoon me into serving as a speech cop. That burden chills speech that Newquist and I would agree is protected.
April Schave of The Rooted Pasque gets the chilling effect:
...if I continue to blog, it would have to go underground, (of sorts), because I need a serious upgrade and I'm willing to bet that any software that we will be required to install would most likely not be compatible with my current system. Limiting my right to free speech based on my current socioeconomic status [April Schave, "I'm An American, I'm Free, I Can Do Whatever I Want. Right?" The Rooted Pasque, 2010.02.07].
HB 1277 and 1278 make it harder for regular folks to blog. Everyone who wants to use the Internet to express herself, whether about the neighborhood or unicorns or John Thune's or Tim Johnson's ineffectiveness as Senator, has to become a techno-whiz. Most of the bloggers I know are perfectly willing to take responsibility for their words. Require them to learn about IP identification and proxies and maintain records of everyone else's speech, and they'll be inclined to say, "Forget it. I'm not a techie, and I'm not a cop." And at that point, a lot of good voices disappear.
Oh yeah, and did I mention proxies? Tony did yesterday. Get a couple Firefox plugins, or just log in to HideMyAss.com, and suddenly, HB 1277 and 1278 are useless. The anonymous jerks who are motivated enough to learn some tech and make mischief will do so. Regular citizens will be stuck with a record-keeping mandate that catches no bad guys.
So really, as Tim Gebhart astutely points out, the debate over the Blog Control Act doesn't have to be a grand discussion of Constitutional rights and responsibilities. We can agree the First Amendment doesn't protect defamation. We can agree anonymi are cowards not to be given credence. Yet we can still recognize that HB 1277 and 1278 are badly written laws that chill good speech without stopping bad speech.