The anonymity conundrum

Before observers start to line up on ideological grounds on this issue, a bit of history is relevant. In the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century, states’-rights politicians tried to get the membership lists of civil rights and civil liberties organizations. They, too, feared harassment. The United States Supreme Court agreed, holding in several precedential decisions that the freedom of association under the First Amendment includes the freedom of anonymity.

On this issue, right and left meet. Anonymity is a shelter for the innocent, and it is a shield of the mischievous. Justice Ginsburg wrote in favor of anonymity in a Colorado voter ID case in 1999 — it protects people’s right to petition, she stated. Liberals on the Supreme Court opined in a 2008 case that Indiana law requiring voter ID was invidious, though the majority opinion by Justice Stevens, joined by the court’s conservatives, ruled that if a valid state interest (avoiding fraud in that case) was involved, ID laws are constitutional. Republicans are associated with voter ID laws, Democrats against.

The earlier civil rights cases held that anonymity is an historic fundamental First Amendment right that protects persecutions, and protects diversity of opinions. There is no consistency among politicians on the sanctity of anonymity; nor is there among jurisprudes. How the future battles play out on the subject of anonymity — in election cases and in many other situations — is a confounding 21st-century problem as media expand and the conflicts between transparency and privacy require rational mediation.


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