Anonymity: The Greatest Weapon Against Oppression

Bradley Smith,

Release Date
October 27, 2016


Free Speech

“Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority” – Justice Paul Stevens
When we think of anonymity on the internet, we often think of the negatives. Trolls say horrible things because they can hide behind a screen, but you might not know that anonymity is also a quintessential part of our functioning democracy.

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Does our right to freedom of speech also guarantee our right to be anonymous? When most people think of anonymity, they usually think of the internet, the trolls who dwell in the comments sections on articles or on Reddit, but the importance of anonymity in America goes back further than you might expect. Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and other political activists during the American Revolution used anonymous pen names while writing politically controversial books and essays. They concealed their identities to protect themselves from retaliation and ensure that readers judge their work based on the merits of their arguments, not their identity. These works are celebrated today as heroic weapons in the defense of liberty, but without anonymity, the founding fathers would have been hanged for treason for broadcasting their ideas in the 13 colonies.
Even though our world is vastly different from 1776, anonymity remains essential today. It offers protection to those who are most at risk of experiencing retaliation for their actions or beliefs such as those who support potentially controversial organizations. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens put it, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.” For example, in 1956, the Alabama attorney general demanded that the NAACP reveal the names and addresses of all their members as a way to bully them out of the state. This intimidation tactic was appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court and was struck down, but highlights the importance that anonymity played in the Civil Rights Movement.
Today, in an effort to make the internet more transparent, some want to require internet commenters to reveal their names online, and it’s not just the internet, some are pushing for legislation that would force causes and advocacy groups to reveal the identities of anonymous supporters. While this may sound like a good idea on the surface, anonymity is crucial for a meaningful right to free speech. When we think about anonymity, we often think about its negative uses, but fail to consider the LGBTQ student seeking confidential advice about coming out to their parents, the young pregnant woman seeking reproductive health, the depressed college student seeking mental health support from an online community, or someone with a controversial political opinion who supports a cause.
The first amendment protects speech and privacy regardless of whether the speech is culturally accepted or rejected. Every American has the right to privacy and anonymity. Without it, anyone with unpopular things to say would feel less safe saying those things. What do you think? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. To learn more, subscribe to Learn Liberty and check out these related videos.