May 17, 2005

Say It to His Face

by PG

Or, the Potential Abuses of Anonymity. (Disclaimer: Prof. Kerr is probably De Novo's collective favorite Conspirator.)

At Armen's Nuts & Boalts, one of his co-bloggers, who posts under the pseudonym "Earl Warren," wrote about the four white men who will serve no more than 30-60 days each for the assault and criminally negligent treatment of a disabled black man. His take was a little different from mine, starting with his "Of course this is what we expect of Texas" attitude, and going on to insult Prof. Kerr.

My favorite part of the Volokh Conspiracy is when one of the libertarian loons professes kinship with a liberal idea, but manges to so stumble over his words that he betrays his far-right fantasies. Case in point, this post by "criminal law scholar" Orin Kerr, where he professes to be shocked, shocked at an "outrageous" and "sickening" story of... racism in the Texas criminal justice system.
In a comment to the post, Kerr invited "Earl" to attend his American Constitution Society panel about race and the criminal justice system. "Please introduce yourself to me at the panel if you do."

Even someone as liberal as myself can identify problems with Earl's take. For example, the Texas death penalty report that he links notes racism in the disparity of treatment based on the victim's race, not the offender's, so that in the Linden case, the verdict likely would have been the same had the four men been black instead of white. The report also finds racism in the composition of juries, which I identified as the factor that, rightly or wrongly, would most affect my feelings about the Linden verdicts: if black jurors also thought that men all under 25 and without criminal records deserved leniency, I'd be more inclined to see this as a normal practice instead of an inherently racist aberration.

But the aspect of the post and Kerr's response that most interested me was the question of whether "Earl" would have written the exact same post had he been posting under his real name, and if not, whether this is a good or a bad thing. The anonymity debate is a hoary old one that predates the internet. Would the authors of the Federalist Papers and other major documents of the Founding era have penned the same works had they been required to sign their real names?

The Constitutional bias toward anonymity as part of one's First Amendment rights is of long standing and recently was upheld again in Watchtower v. Village of Stratton. So the legal aspects are fairly settled and useful only in providing some of the rationales to weigh in determining whether anonymity is good ethics and etiquette.

I write pseudo-pseudonymously; that is, my identity is nominally masked by using only my initials, but people link to my blogs using my real name and I've linked within posts to stuff I've written that has my name on it. However, I would stand by everything I've written insofar as I would not be unwilling to have my full name on it, even the posts I now consider ill-advised. For the most part, I don't sound any stupider on my blogs than I did as an opinion columnist for my student newspaper, where they printed not only my name but also my picture.

May 17, 2005 04:04 PM | TrackBack

I personally would feel uncomfortable blogging anonymously. I know that I would be more inclined to post things without having to think about the repercussions. By using my real name I allow myself to post on the same issues in a way that allows others to denounce me if they so choose. The person who blogged about Kerr is just using anonymity to attack a position they otherwise would have to keep quiet about.

I think my take on this issue stems from a firm belief that you shouldn't say something that you aren't willing to take credit for. It really sucks when experts come along and tell you how badly you messed up your analysis, but at the same time, just one "good-job" from an expert makes all those mistakes worth-while. I’d encourage “Warren” to meet with Kerr, which would show a real drive to educate readers rather than to just be a misfit.

At the same time, I feel like I get some comfort from reading anonymous blogging. As you said, it allows the reader to really take in the words without first framing the work into some little parameter. So thanks for the anonymity, it must take lots of self-control. As for me, I’ll take all the crazy e-mails I’ve received over feeling like becoming a jerk just because I can.

Posted by: Sean Sirrine at May 18, 2005 01:50 AM

If mainstream journalists can use anonymous sources with impunity, why not bloggers and commenters posting anonymously? As for me, I provide part of my name and geographical location. And as noted in PG's post, the First Amendment speech clauses must be considered. Is Mr. Kerr prepared to give equal microphone time to Earl if the latter identifies himself, or would Mr. Kerr take the opportunity to bully Earl from his pulpit?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at May 18, 2005 07:08 AM
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