Who is Publius? or, Who's Afraid of Anonymous Political Speech?


To hear the Obama administration tell it, there are few things worse than anonymous political activity. Just recently, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Christian Science Monitor:

The untold story of 2010 is not the "tea party" or not the health-care bill, or a number of these issues. It is the amount of money that is flowing in districts around the country and particularly the amount of anonymous money….

I haven't been any place where there aren't dozens of ads now being run and nobody knows who is behind them…I am used to a political system where people engage in battles and you know who brought them to the dance.

But is anonymous political speech really that new—or that bad?

Indeed, anonymous political speech isn't just a great American tradition. It helped create the United States of America. The Federalist Papers, the series of essays that influenced the adoption of the Constitution, were published under the pseudonym "Publius" (in reality James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay). The anti-Constitution position was in turn articulated by "the Federal Farmer," whose identity remains a mystery.

Former Federal Election Commission chair Bradley Smith lays out other arguments in favor of anonymous political speech in a contemporary context:

[Election] disclosure regulations are some of the most burdensome. Disclosure limits free speech because it allows the government to retaliate against people. The Supreme Court has consistently held that people do have a right to anonymous speech. The cases speak for themselves.

The most prominent one is probably NAACP v. Alabama (1964), when Alabama wanted to know who was funding the NAACP's activities. We can see how that would be intimidating. Then there's McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995). McIntyre was doing anonymous brochures against a school tax, which all the school officials supported. She had children in the schools who needed grades and access to such things as athletic teams and bands. She didn't necessarily want her name known, even though it was important for her to fight this issue. Another major case was Brown v. Socialist Workers '74 Campaign Committee (1982). The socialists rightly said, "If we have to reveal our donors, they won't give us money. They will get harassed. Their businesses will get blackballed and that sort of thing." Disclosure can be more inhibiting than people think.

Which is something to think about when people already in power push legislation such as The DISCLOSE Act, which would force groups to list donors and reveal their names in advertisements. The DISCLOSE Act is in part a response to this year's controversial Citizen's United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by the Supreme Court. Hyperbolically likened by critics to the infamous Dred Scott decision, Citizen's United dealt with a documentary film censored by the government and broadened the speech rights of corporations, unions, and nonprofits. Far from opening American politics up to undue influence by unspecificed foreigners (as President Obama has charged), the ruling makes it easier for smaller groups and individuals to spread their messages.

As with many political firestorms, the current one about "dangerous" anonymous speech generates more heat than insight. Anonymous speech is fully in the American grain but it also comes at a price. When the source of political speech is not known or disclosed, voters tend to discount it, or at least look for corroboration elsewhere. Which is exactly how it should be. And if you don't in the end trust voters to make informed decisions, then all the mandatory disclosure in the world can't help them.

"Who is Publius?" is written and produced by Meredith Bragg and Nick Gillespie. Approximately 45 seconds.

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NEXT: Memo to Dems: You're Not Being Punished for What You Didn't Do, But for What You Did!

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  1. Is anonymous political speech really that new – or that bad?

    Maobama loved his anonymous donors. His records in that field were praised by the press.

    I am a firm believer in anonymous speech, especially in the arts.

    1. But, Suki, it’s only okay when THEY do it. Didn’t you get the memo?

      1. Thank you! I was wondering when someone would say it. It’s okay when liberals do it since they are morally superior (because they don’t like mathematics or history).

        If you spent all your collegiate career filling your head with subjective communication, they YOU TOO would understand “how the world works”

        1. Double tap.

          1. Garland, TX. It is just like the movie.

  2. We need to investigate the people behind the support of anonymous political speech.

    1. And anonymous blog commentary! We’re subverting (if not hiding behind) the spirit of free speech. Now, there are some who would say that the First Amendment guarantees free speech, but.

    2. I agree. Who were all of those people who contributed to the obama campaign with anonymous credit cards from all over the world?

  3. Thought of the perfect disclosure rule: only the winning side in an election has to disclose it’s donors. Protects the losers from retribution and shows you who bribed the winners with campaign contributions.

    1. Which is why we need card-check!

    2. I’m only half kidding.

      I’ve been arguing against disclosure laws, but am thinking twice because of something that came to light in the city I live in.

      The local Democratic establishment, the majority of our city council, and the city manager’s office have been pushing an extension of our local telephone tax. The extra city income is needed to pay for pensions for … folks in the city manager’s office and unions that back the Democrats.

      Two local builders, who just happened to get approval for their projects about the same time, contributed to the campaign for this tax extension. There’s no reason they would naturally be interested in the issue at all.

      So, maybe there really is some value in knowing who has contributed to the winning side, so we know what kind of bribes they have been demanding and of whom.

      Of course, that has nothing to do with actually judging the issues or candidates. That’s why it could all be disclosed after the fact.

      Not sure I buy my own argument, which is why I am half joking.

  4. They’re just pissed because if the speech is anonymous, the only thing to evaluate is the argument itself; the argument can’t be smeared by ad hominem attacks.

    A valid argument is valid even if the speaker is somebody you don’t like. And the fact that the speaker has an axe to grind is irrelevant too; shit, everybody in politics has an axe to grind.

    1. Oh, wow: your first sentence is right on. Hadn’t thought of it that way. Sometimes the simple points are the most persuasive.

      There was also an excellent defense of political anonymity in the Winter, 2010 edition of City Journal.

    2. Agree with Raven – very good points esp 1st sentence


    3. “They’re just pissed because if the speech is anonymous, the only thing to evaluate is the argument itself; the argument can’t be smeared by ad hominem attacks.”


    4. “They’re just pissed because if the speech is anonymous, the only thing to evaluate is the argument itself; the argument can’t be smeared by ad hominem attacks.”

      Oh, I don’t know. I’ve seen some pretty “good” ad hominem attacks on anonymous bloggers.

      But I agree on your comment about valid arguments.

    5. Hey, asshole, how bout I get the FCC to find out who you are and pay you a lil visit? If I can’t whack away at their character, what the hell else do I got to go on? Voting records, logic?? I don’t got time for that shit, I gotta ‘happy ending’ golf tournament with the ATTY GEN at 1:00.

  5. Wow! That really makes sense when you think about it! lol!


    1. We’ll find out who you are anonymity bot!

  6. The Publius example is actually how the elite want to work. Its OK for James Madison to push his agenda anonymously, just like its OK for the Washington establishment to be anonymous source for newspaper and TV stories. Most of the unnamed sources in the media stories today are not little file clerks, they are the policy makers who don’t want to come out into the open. They just don’t want the common folk to be anonymous

  7. If Francisco D’Anconia can put his name on his “Brother, you asked for it!” billboard, so can the Tobacco Institute!

  8. We have anonymous ballots. Should that be?

    Lysander Spooner says no.

    I think I might agree with him if I cared enough.

  9. The whole idea of mandating disclosure always seemed to be just more fascist nonsense – an attempt to silence certain ideas by attacking those behind the ideas.

    What gives these f—ing fascists the right to demand such disclosure?

    F— em.

  10. I’m starting to think that the “furreners is stealing our democracy” meme is not about changing the trajectory of this election, but is setting up some power grab by the lame duck congress.

    It the modus operandi of dictatorships.


  11. Here’s the problem I personally have with anonymous political speech: I don’t want to associate with companies – either as a shareholder or as a customer – who support agendas that I am against. Doing business with such companies would mean that in a very small, but still existing way, I’d be contributing to supporting those agendas. If companies do not disclose their political contributions, I must assume the worst and not do business with them.

    Here’s the problem: If nobody discloses their political contributions, I’ll either starve from not doing business with any company, or I’ll feel bad about myself for potentially supporting causes I don’t want to support, via doing business with the wrong companies. Some may argue that market will solve this problem, but in this case I don’t think markets are that efficient.

    1. “I’ll either starve from not doing business with any company, or I’ll feel bad about myself for potentially supporting causes I don’t want to support, via doing business with the wrong companies”

      Do you pay taxes that support the War on Drugs? How does that make you feel about yourself?

      BTW, there are no wrong companies.

      1. I do feel pretty bad about supporting various wars (including the one on drugs) with my taxes, but at least I can limit those by being frugal and non-cash bartering for services. I can also decide not to support local and county municipalities by not shopping there. However, for a company to declare their political donations one way or another, while nobody else would do so, would mean losing a large number of customers. As such, I don’t even have the limited options that I get as a taxpayer.

        1. The problem is that you’re punishing a business man for his personal beliefs. Campaign adds are just speech, and they are in no way “purchasing elections.” When I buy bread from the grocery store, I understand that the owner will probably use some of my money to bang prostitutes when he is supposed to be on his anniversary, but I also understand that those two things have nothing to do with eachother. I understand that you want to be a “conscientious” consumer, but that is impossible without being able to shine a light on the personal thoughts of the people that you buy things from. I don’t believe that being involved in business should carry an extra responsibility to do things other than run one’s business well.

          When you purchase things from another person and you give them money, you expand their abilities to do all sorts of things with that money, and demanding to know what is done with that money seems immoral. The guy who sells you a rake doesn’t ask what you are doing with the rake. Maybe he’d rather not sell it to you?

          That is why markets work so well; they bring together people from different races, religions, etc that would otherwise avoid each other, because everyone wants to improve their material position and range of opportunity.

        2. You’re still trying to attack an entities ability to speak rather than discuss the issue at hand.

        3. If you really want to know who the company is donating to, become a shareholder and ask for their financials.

      2. “BTW, there are no wrong companies.”

        “and how they benefit from government interference in the market. Just look at GE, UPS, GM.”

        Yes, there are only under performing markets and extragalactic anomalies. Bravo.

    2. Its not hard to figure out where a company stands politically and how they benefit from government interference in the market. Just look at GE, UPS, GM.

    3. I have some sympathy for your position & I would not be convinced that markets solve this particular issue. That said, if anonymity increases free speech and individual rights, I believe it would have to trump the concerns you express here. Not an ideal solution, but one of preference.

    4. Cool. You’re also willing to accept when your boss fires you so that he won’t be helping contribute to people with the wrong political beliefs, right?

    5. Uhmm, suck it up. Your desire for knowledge does not trump my right to be left alone.



    I think I have that straight.

    1. Pretty much, Almanian.

    2. That’s right, corporations are not people and they have no place in our democracy. Anonymous propaganda and manipulation is a good thing? Anonymous industrial brainwashing is a good thing? You guys are a bunch of free-market fanboys and the fascism you fear is exactly what you are ushering in. Your hands will be stained with blood when anonymous ads get sarah palin elected and she ushers in WWIII. Read 1984 lately? “free markets and free minds”, please. Then why do you each say the same thing to get attention from each other instead of thinking for yourself? Have free markets freed the minds of the chinese? How free are everyone’s minds going to be when we are bombarded with incessant propaganda? And anonymous propaganda at that, probably from the Saudis and shit, oh that really sounds stellar

      1. Thank you for caring so much about my inability to filter information and make conscious decisions based on credible information.
        Troll awn, dawg. Troll awn..

        1. I’m not trolling obviously.

          That’s just it, by buying a large number of ads, the information is given an air of credibility. Do you really think people are not affected by this? You’d be going crazy about State propaganda, but corporate propaganda, no problem! right? I’m sure the massive ads in everyone’s faces and the fine print tucked away for home sales and home refinancing had nothing at all to do with the housing crisis did it? We will enter corporate fascism. You can now buy moral authority in the United States. Any agency can now threaten and coerce politicians with unlimited sums of money to do their bidding when they are supposed to be representing the people. Corruption has been legalized. As I said it’s 1984. See what happened in England today? wake the fuck up

  13. I want to know whose ass to kick!

    1. Start with your own, jagoff.

      1. I hear the public is going to do that the first part of November.

  14. “Anonymous speech” =/ “Anonymous unlimited donations”

    Thanks for playing.

    1. So?
      I know your vote’s for sale; are you trying to find out who is the highest bidder?

    2. Thanks for playing…

      Shut the fuck up retard.

    3. I hate to bust your bubble, but “because Chad says so” is not a terribly persuasive argument.

    4. Chad’s all for it, as long as the anonymous unlimited donations go to HIS party.


    5. I keep telling progressives, we should just duct-tape the mouths of everyone but politicians shut in the months leading up to an election. Mouths != speech.

  15. Yeah, progressives don’t want the right to “buy an election”; they only want the left to do that.

    1. The left would support fairly financed elections, and you wouldn’t. how about you speak for yourself instead of constantly painting your opposition with your own worst tendencies? Then when they point out the truth you say “I know you are but what am I”. Oh did I just expose the entire right-wing game plan? yep

      1. Political spectrum fail.

        1. you’re not far-right? please. fine, if not then explain it to me instead of making yet another snide comment

        2. Anyway my original point wasn’t about you being right wing, in fact I never even said that, just said you were using the same tactics. Probably because you can’t deny the fact you are using the same immature tactics of glenn beck. Let me guess you’re going to tell me he’s not aligned with the right-wing either.

  16. I agree that when we are all forced to elect our generic new corporate liaisons it would be nice to know what special interests they represent before they go on to DC to do nothing at all related to what they campaigned on.

  17. There are so many examples in history, and in the present.

    Should those opposing the regimes in North Korea, Iran, and China be required to disclose their identities?

    I’m sure that the authorities there believe so.

    1. Yes, I am trying to model this country after North Korea.

  18. gsdv gebgdhfNice post.It’s all in the eyes and where they are looking~

  19. Kathleen S. and Robert G.: you are hypocrites. You can’t order an IRA audit if I post anonymously.

  20. easy for you to say.

  21. “Far from opening American politics up to undue influence by unspecificed foreigners…”

    How can you make this statement? I heard the same thing on MSNBC this morning. Yes, it DOES open up our politics to undue influence by unspecified foreigners! Period.

  22. Comparing this to North Korea, etc., seems a little disingenuous.

  23. Can you anonymously yell “fire” in a theater…Well, okay, that’s probably illegal. Can you anonymously spread a rumor that terrorists plan to attack a shopping center if you know it’s false or even if you believe it might be true, but have no proof? That isn’t illegal, but it is immoral and unethical – and actually might be illegal because it is a terrorist act in and of itself. The problem with anonymous attack ads is that these ads, whether we like it or not, sway some people politicaly by attacking some and supporting others. So the people not attacked in those ads will benefit from them and don’t we want to know who is making such influential political contributions? It is bad enough when politicians make attacks ads that contain false information/innuendo and we KNOW who paid for them. A sizable portion of the voting public doesn’t know reality from fiction anyway – so shouldn’t we know who is contributing to that ignorance even if we can’t prevent it?

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