Short Relief: Anonymous speech has a place, but not among political operatives

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The speculation has ended. The mystery is solved. The creators of the anonymous website “The Cutler Files” had billed themselves as a group of researchers, writers and journalists. Now, they have been exposed to be nothing more than a couple.

One partner was political consultant Dennis Bailey, who advised independent candidate for governor Shawn Moody. The other was Thom Rhoads, husband of Rosa Scarcelli, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. Bailey advised Scarcelli before he went to work for Moody.

The website was accessible from August through October last year. It featured negative claims about independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler. Those claims included that Cutler was not the Mainer, the environmentalist or the political independent that he professed to be. Rather, the website asserted that Cutler was a Washington bureaucrat, attorney and lobbyist. The website also claimed that it was not affiliated with any candidate and claimed that it did not advocate against any candidate.

During the campaign, Cutler complained that the website was false and misleading. He filed a formal complaint with the state Ethics Commission, which concluded that the website was, in fact, an express form of advocacy against a candidate. It ultimately fined Bailey $200 for failure to disclose who paid for the site and for failure to disclaim association with any candidate.

After being outed, Bailey and Rhoads defended their work on the basis that it provided the public with important information about a major candidate for a powerful office that the mainstream media was not reporting. They defended their use of anonymity on the basis that they had a constitutional right to anonymous speech and did not want to distract attention from their message or hamstring candidates they were supporting.

Anonymous, or pseudonymous, speech has been an element of American political life from its earliest stages. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison wrote The Federalist Papers to promote ratification of the U.S. Constitution. They used the pseudonym “Publius” to avoid having their identities, personalities and associations detract from their arguments.

Abraham Lincoln used pseudonyms on two occasions. The first was in 1837, when he was about 28 years old, living in Springfield, Ill., practicing law, and sitting as a member of the state Legislature. Lincoln wrote a series of letters to the local paper, The Sangamo Journal, whose editor was a friend. In these letters, Lincoln attacked a Democratic officeholder as a Tory. He signed the letters “Sampson’s Ghost.” The rival saw through the pseudonym and retaliated by calling Lincoln a deist.

Five years later, Lincoln wrote another series of letters over the signature “Rebecca.” This time, he attacked another prominent young Democrat, who was the state auditor, for being a vain fool and liar, and for manufacturing the then-current financial crisis. This rival also saw through the pseudonym. He challenged Lincoln to a duel that was only averted through the intervention of friends.

In 1972, an insider referred to as “Deep Throat” leaked information about the Nixon Administration’s wrongdoings to reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Those wrongdoings included dirty tricks played on opponents during the 1972 re-election campaign. Woodward and Bernstein wrote a series of exposes in The Washington Post that eventually contributed to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. They maintained their source’s confidentiality until 2005, when former FBI Associate Deputy Director Mark Feld revealed himself to have been their source.

The arguments against anonymous speech include that it is dishonest, irresponsible, cowardly and unfair. That knowing the proponent of an argument helps understand and evaluate the argument itself, because positions are often the product of self-interest. That anonymity hampers the victim of an attack from confronting their critics and defending themselves. That, in a democracy, citizens need to know who stands where on what issues in order to make informed judgments. That falsehood should be confronted and corrected.

The arguments in favor of anonymous speech include that it is a way for the oppressed to confront their oppressor. That suppression is bad policy that does not resolve anything, but only ignores problems, allowing them to fester. That orthodoxy is stultifying and that new and different ideas are essential for innovation and progress. That to be human is to be fallible, and the best policy in the face of such imperfection is to consider different ideas, in order to identify the good ones. That ideas should be judged on the basis of their merits; that judging them by their proponents is a lazy shortcut at best and ignorant prejudice at worst.

There are many forms of suppression, from physical violence, to threats of retaliation, to climates of fear, cheating, dirty tricks, peer pressure and media bias. Anonymous speech seems most defensible when employed by the oppressed against their oppressor.

It is least defensible when the powerful use it to influence events in their favor. It doesn’t seem very necessary among relative equals – like Bailey, Rhoads and others in the public political arena – who have ample opportunity to get their message out, and have little else to fear than how the public receives that message.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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