Should anonymous political web pages be illegal?

Here are a four replies I got to this question when I posted it in the Usenet newsgroups can.infohighway.

Newsgroups: can.infohighway,can.politics,can.legal, ...
Subject: Question: Should "anonymous" political ads on the Net be illegal?
From: djones@efc.ca (David Jones)
Date: 6 May 1997 21:42:06 -0400
Organization: Electronic Frontier Canada
Message-ID: <5komle$74u@insight.dcss.mcmaster.ca>

I would like to hear *your* opinion on whether Canadians should be able to publish web pages endorsing or criticizing a particular political candidate or political party, without identifying himself/herself.

Q: Should anonymous political web pages be illegal?
Q: Why?
There's a growing controversy in Canada about section 259.2(1) of the Canada Elections Act (since we're in the middle of a federal election).
Offence
259.2 (1) Every person who sponsors or conducts advertising without identifying the name of the sponsor and indicating that it was authorized by that sponsor is guilty of an offence.
The act goes on to say that the "offence" is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to a year in jail.

An example of an (apparently) illegal web page can be found at:

http://www.achilles.net/~kebera/anon/vote-green.html
Should the author of this web page face a jail termi in a free and democratic society?

Canada doesn't seem to have the "tradition" of protecting anonymous political pamphleteering the way the U.S does. Can anyone explain why anonymous political speech is worth protecting?

Please post your follow-up to "can.infohighway" or reply directly to me and I'll post a summary to the newsgroups listed in the header.

David Jones -- Electronic Frontier Canada
djones@efc.ca -- http://www.efc.ca/


From: david@hayes-family.org (David Hayes)
Date: Wed, 07 May 1997 15:06:58 GMT
Anonymity is a shield that protects those offering unpopular ideas. An idea, true or false, should stand or fall on its own merits, without regard to the identity of the person presenting it.

Of course, this does present some troubles for enforcing libel/slander. But I don't think that's what is at issue here. By talking explicitly about anonymous policital speech, it looks like Canada is concerned about special interests advocating a position without identifying their own interest in it.

David Hayes -- david@hayes-family.org
From: kpollak@portal.ca (Karl Pollak)
Date: Wed, 07 May 1997 22:36:01 GMT
>       Q:   Should anonymous political web pages be illegal?

A: NO !!

Because limitations on the freedom of expression must have a much weightier reasons than "I don't like what these people are saying" or "I wanna know who has been saying these things about my own sacred cows"

If the author says outrageous things or does not have the balls to even attach his own name to the rant, well, with most semi-intelligent people it speaks volumes as to the credibility of the author. The rest of the population will probably believe anything that appears to be agreeing with their own prejudiced opinions and it makes no difference what somebody tells them.

>       Can anyone explain why anonymous political speech is worth protecting?
It isn't in or of itself. But once you start making distinctions between which kind of speech is or is not worth protecting, you are entering very dangerous waters. Agreeable speech does not need any protection, nobody tries to outlaw it. Yet. It is expressions which some or even most people disagree with that need to be protected. Any form of non-violent dissent should be vigorously protected, no matter how lunatic or disgusting it may appear to be.
--
Karl Pollak, kpollak@portal.ca
Richmond, British Columbia
From: kadie@ai.uiuc.edu (Carl M. Kadie)
Date: 8 May 1997 20:11:09 GMT
I'm enclosing my U.S.-centerned information. But first, how about this argument for Canadians?
For the same reasons that secret ballots necessary for true democracy, anonymous political speech is necessary. When only the powerful could affort effective political speech, anonymity was irreverent, but now that everyone can affort effective polticial speech, we need the protection of anonymity.
[I guess the argument that anonymous speech was central to the American revolution might be an argument against it in Canada :-) ]

- Carl

----------start--------

[q:]
Does a leaflet have to identify the person or group responsible for its message?

[a:]
Not usually. The Supreme Court has held that the distribution of anonymous political leaflets is a constitutionally protected activity because "{a}nonymously 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."{21} However, a few lower courts have upheld restrictions on anonymous leaflets that are part of an election campaign in order to prevent "dirty tricks."{22}

[References]

21.
Tally v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960); see also Wilson v. Stocker, 819 F2d 943 (10th Cir. 1987)

22.
Morefield v. Moore, 540 S.W. 2d 873 (Ky. 1976); but see People v. White, 116 Ill. 2d 171, 506 N.E.2d 1284 (1987)

---------end------

ALSO SEE:

--
Carl Kadie -- kadie@cs.uiuc.edu -- ftp://ftp.cs.uiuc.edu/pub/kadie/


From: jetson@nbnet.nb.ca (Chris Rasley)
Date: Fri, 16 May 1997 22:33:49 GMT
For the time being, however, the web is a special case. Unlike the TV, radio or newspaper, the WWW is not yet part of the broadcast media. Radio and TV advertising is intrusive, in that it takes space in linear time and can't generally be skipped-- if you want to see the rest of the show, you have to sit through the advertising. You will see that advertising even if you are not interested in buying, which is why the companies pay for it in the first place-- the TV viewer is a hostage. Not so for WWW surfers. First of all, we generally have the ability to simply ignore mast-head advertising. Second, we have a "back" function that will allow us to retreat from a site we find offensively commercial.
>       Should anonymous political advertising be illegal?
Not on the web. Free speech should include the freedom to opine about politics, at least as long as that speech is avoidable by the public. Give people the credit they deserve-- if the publisher of a political WWW site remains anonymous, then the information given will be judged solely on its merit. If anything, that is *better* than having a spokesperson whose name and reputation will give instant credibility to information.

...

If one party chooses to spend twice as much money on TV advertising as the next, that translates into twice as much exposure and (potentially) twice the number of viewers. If one party chooses to spend twice as much money on WWW advertising as the next, that doesn't guarantee them twice as many visitors.

--
Chris Rasley -- jetson@nbnet.nb.ca -- http://personal.nbnet.nb.ca/jetson
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.