Politics

The Surprisingly Strong and Historic Case for 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.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called anonymous speech "a threat to democracy" and over the weekend at a rally in Ohio, President Obama lashed out at groups whose donors are not alway visible, likening them to the evil "empire" of the Star Wars movies. 

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

In fact, 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. Those interventions weren't a threat to democracy—they were an expression of it.

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 1958), 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, though it also comes at a price for the people making it.

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.

For downloadable versions of all Reason.tv videos, go here. To receive automatic notification when new material goes live, subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube Channel.

Advertisement

NEXT: Candidate of the Day: Jimmy McMillan

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Ann Althouse brought up a good point today. Obama and the liberal pundits are claiming the Tea Parties are all a bunch of John Bircher crackpots. Yet, Obama is claiming the Chamber of Commerce is a nefarious agent of foreign influence. If that doesn’t sound like a crackpot Bircher conspiracy theory nothing does.

  2. anonymous political speech isn’t just a great American tradition. It helped create the United States of America.

    I think this is the root of the establishmentarians’ dread.

  3. Anybody remember the old Steve Jackson Illuminati game? Is it just me, or does political rhetoric more and more resemble that game? I’m waiting for someone to suggest the Chamber of Commerce is secretly funded by the Gnomes of Zurich in the quest to build the Orbital Mind Control Laser.

    I mean, seriously, the Chamber of Commerce is a nefarious front group for evil furriners? Are you people that whacked out?

    1. Re: T,

      I mean, seriously, the Chamber of Commerce is a nefarious front group for evil furriners? Are you people that whacked out?

      But they think that because the CofC is not disclosing

      1. You’re an evil furriner, OM. Your money is not to be trusted, but it must be disclosed.

        1. Actually, T, foreigners’ money is plenty trusted when the government can take it from them. Do you have any idea all the charges, fees, taxes, disclosures, etc. that this administration has added to the burden of being a foreign worker here?

          1. Re: Episiarch,

            Do you have any idea all the charges, fees, taxes, disclosures, etc. that this administration has added to the burden of being a foreign worker here?

            Every year is just another drain in my pocketbook for that reason alone . . . that much is sadly true.

          2. Through the magic of government, evil, untrustworthy foreign money becomes shiny and clean. Simply disclose and/or hand over those filthy foreign dollars and they will become as new, suitable for use by real Americans everywhere.

            1. Uncle Sam knows transubstantiation.

    2. Savor it, because it’s probably the only time you’ll see progressives argue that foreigners shouldn’t tell Americans what to think.

      1. Exactly.

        Please don’t let me forget this the next time I hear “In every other industrial nation they have (insert giant govt. boondoggle here)”.

    3. So is the CoC’s Illuminati alignment government and criminal, or communist and criminal?

      1. If we’re going to use gaming terminology, keep in mind that CoC means “Call of Cthulhu”, Chaosium’s HPLovecraft roleplaying game. 🙂

  4. You know what really sickens me about the whole “disclosure” BS going on around the Chamber of Commerce issue?

    All the Democrat whining about “How will we know there’s no foreign contributions unless there’s disclosure?”

    Um, the same fucking way you know if any OTHER crime is committed. If the government can establish probable cause, you can undertake searches and seizures.

    Fucking SPARE ME this whole “Well maybe a crime has been committed somewhere, so everyone turn out your pockets” bullshit.

    1. The bottom line is this:

      Presidant Obama is a god damned liar. It’s all he knows. He sould change his name to Barack Clouseau.

      1. then who gets to be Inspector Dreyfuss? Kato??

      2. The bottom line is this:

        Presidant Obama is a god damned liar.

        Well, hell, Pip. He is a politician. What’dya expect?

  5. If I knew that it annoyed Sebelius so much before today, I would have donated to as many anonymous campaigns as possible.

  6. Anonymous? Everyone already knows that all anti-progressive speech originated with in the pockets of the Koch brothers.

  7. It’s as though I read this very post yesterday…deja vu all over again

  8. If anon-bot doesn’t comment on this post, I’m totally giving up on the guy.

  9. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called anonymous speech “a threat to democracy”[…]

    “Democracy” meaning here “my meal ticket.”

    So, anonymous speech is a threat to the Dems’ meal ticket. No wonder they are so pissed at it!

  10. So what if an ad is “anonymous”? Are the assertions documented and the ideas valid?

    I think I see the real reason for license plates: so we can find out who belongs to those political bumper stickers.

  11. [A]t a rally in Ohio, President Obama lashed out at groups whose donors are not alway visible, likening them to the evil “empire” of the Star Wars movies.

    People voted for Obama because of his witty use of references a la Dennis Miller…

    … because for his understanding of economics or constitutional government, certainly not.

    1. “President Obama lashed out at groups whose donors are not alway visible, likening them to the evil “empire” of the Star Wars movies.”

      Say, wasn’t that Darth Vader guy big, black and evil? And he sounded a lot like that black actor James Earl Jones. I guess Barack is finally letting us get a glimpse of his white side.

  12. Shouldn’t the secretary of HHS be HHSing? As can be expected from someone who has no administrative experience, Obama does not want administrators in his various departments. He wants political hacks campaigning 24/7.

  13. You know, I’m surprised they don’t want everyone to disclose who they vote for. If anonymous political influence is bad then what could be worse than the secret ballot?

    1. hush ———- don’t give them more ideas!

    2. Just a matter of time.

      Meanwhile, of course, there’s the ol’ “What, don’t you have the courage of your convictions?”.

    3. Exactly. Back in the day, voters would publically drop ballots in party A’s box or Party B’s. Watchers made sure those who were bought stayed bought. Of course, employers could watch too and more than one voter lost his job for voting wrong. So the secret ballot was legislated for.
      But what is worse – casting one’s ballot for someone your boss or union leader doesn’t like or actually being found to have given money to that unpopular candidate? Secret contributions should be as sacred as secret ballots.

      1. Is anyone beside me (and Robert LeFevre) going to take the side that says it’s good to have accountability on the part of those who would take a hand in ruling us, such as voters? That it’s a good thing we can exert pressure on each other for our democratic activities? Does not a secret ballot (and anonymous political speech) make for secret gov’t?

        Otherwise, what recourse do we have? Why should voters and contributors be any less accountable than any other arm of gov’t?

        1. If it comes down to it, people already can be held accountable for their political interests…

        2. No.

          Because you are conflating the public at large holding those in power accountable with those in power holding the “little people” accountable for trying to remove their “betters”.

          Seriously, the last thing we want is to give more power to the folks claiming that they get to do the people business in secret while spying on whoever they want for any reason (or lack there of) they care to make up.

          Sheesh.

  14. Sebelius, no doubt, does not see the irony in peddling her wild eyed conspiracy theories to a newspaper founded to dispute and be a counter to wild eyed conspiracy theories.

  15. Anybody else notice how hard The Daily Show has been beating the “Citizens United/foreign money” drum?

    This is one of these things that seem to possess the Democrats here and there. They become absolutely obsessed over something for a while. The Health Care act was like that; they decided they were doing it, and then all that mattered was getting it done, regardless of how it turned out.

    1. For a crowd that wants us to take all of our welfare policies and social mores from Europe, you’d think they’d like the foreign money thing.

      1. How about this:

        “Every other industrialized nation on earth does not allow foreigners to influence policy!”

        1. “They’re all non-comformists who march to the beat of their own drum! Why can’t we be more like them?”

        2. Not so in the EU, where laws come from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

  16. But, but, but some of those anonymous donations might support REPUBLICANS! We can’t allow that!

  17. Anybody else notice how hard The Daily Show has been beating the “Citizens United/foreign money” drum?

    No.

    Guess why.

  18. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called anonymous speech “a threat to democracy”

    We don’t live in a democracy. I seriously can’t understand why people believe that the United States has ever been one. We’re a constitutional republic (admittedly one with practically no regard for the “constitutional” part) and have been since we started. I did, in the interest of full disclosure, attend a government school and my “American Government” teacher was a bit foggy on the details herself, but you’d think someone as highly placed as Gibbs would know the difference.

  19. My posting on this site is anonymous political speech….better lock me up!

    1. To quote a great man, you are never really anonymous on the Internet.

  20. Didn’t pretty much everyone know who was writing the Federalist Papers? The pen name was just to capture that it was the voice of the “public” demanding a more centralized, effective government iirc…

    I fail to see what is so controversial about making people who are, after all, trying to effect public debate about public policy make themselves and their efforts, well, public. The source of information is important in judging that information, and when the information aims to effect the public it is best the source be public. It helps to identify possible rent-seeking, corruption, and self-serving propaganda, all of which are important considerations when weighing proposed public policy options.

    1. I sure hope you’re just playing devil’s advocate here, MNG, because otherwise you’re on the razor’s edge between deliberately obtuse and full retard.

      1. Funny, I thought I was stating pretty obvious truths…

        1. Imagine an ad that says “McDonald’s hamburgers have been found to be the most tasteless, worst for you hamburgers of any fast food joint. This message brought to you by the Concerned Physicians of America for a Proper Diet.”

          And then you found out that the PAPD was entirely a creation of Burger King Inc.

          Wouldn’t that information be pretty important in evaluating this message? In fact without the info the message is borderline fraudulent.

          1. The message is independent from the speaker. My motivation for delivering the message is irrelevant. This is especially true of policy arguments. If you think the policy is a good one, who gives a crap who else agrees with you or why? Make the argument on the basis of the policy. Anything else is an argument fail and leads to shitty rules.

            In the political arena, who gives a damn who sponsors an ad that says Candidate X will be a shitty senator? Either voters are smart enough to process information or they’re too dumb to be trusted with the republic. There isn’t a whole lot of middle ground here.

            We’ve also covered the idea that advocating certain positions comes with blowback. I’ve seen that first hand during a particularly nasty POA fight last year. One of the opponents of a measure had people physically threaten her over blog posts she didn’t even make.

          2. There are already civil processes available to deal with fraudulent claims.

          3. I think actually tasting the hamburger would be far more important in evaluating any message regarding its relative tastelessness. Are you implying that knowing that the message comes from source A, as opposed to source B, changes the taste?

          4. Affect. You can affect the debate by speaking, and you hope to have an effect. If you happen to be in a position of authority, you may be able to effect change directly.

            Now, more importantly, why do you believe unverified claims that you hear? If you saw a sign that said, “running your car into a wall at high speed will decrease your blood pressure,” would you believe that? How about those ads for “news stories” on e-cigarettes? Do you believe those? How about when an anonymous source speaking to CBS claims that Sarah Palin is a Democratic plant? Do you believe that?

            Or is this one of classic liberal arguments that starts, “well, I’m not an abject moron, but I’m concerned for my neighbors who are”?

          5. Imagine an ad that says “McDonald’s hamburgers have been found to be the most tasteless, worst for you hamburgers of any fast food joint. This message brought to you by the Concerned Physicians of America for a Proper Diet.”

            And then you found out that the PAPD was entirely a creation of Burger King Inc.

            Wouldn’t that information be pretty important in evaluating this message? In fact without the info the message is borderline fraudulent.

            Such ads occur all the time by “consumer advocacy” groups, such as Center for Science in the Public Interest. The merits of their argument is not in who funds them, but in the reasoning to substantiate the claims. The source of funding is irrelevant because the organization itself is a “special interest” and as such has it’s own motivations for acting.

    2. Publius was unknown for some time, but the counter to Publius, Federalist Farmer, is still unknown to this day.

    3. Read the fucking article, douchenozzle:

      [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 1958), 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.

      1. Government retaliation is a separate issue already clearly covered by the 1st Amendment. Public disclosure is about private “retaliation”.

        1. Let’s say we have a paranoid, Nixonian president in the White House who is busily compiling an enemies list. Let’s say that the people who wind up on this list end up being the target of audits and various other harassing behavior by the government. Perhaps a regulatory system will be devised preventing anyone from successfully operating a certain type of business without “waivers” that will, coincidentally, be granted to those who refrain from criticizing the current regime. This will, of course, be entirely unintentional as any direct retaliation by the government would be unconstitutional.

          Can you honestly tell me that any of the above would be far-fetched or unprecedented?

    4. “The source of information is important in judging that information”

      Are you saying that if you were provided with information that you agree with, that you would disagree with it when you found out it was provided by an interest you don’t like? That’s some intellectual integrity you have there.

      1. Policy decisions are often not about some theoretical right and wrong, but about who will be advantaged and who will be disadvantaged. That’s a huge part of the equation and it is not always obvious. Knowing some groups are really pushing for something can often indicate a big part of that equation.

        1. Whoever is advocating for and benefiting from a policy decision does not change my opinion of whether that policy is right or wrong.

        2. Policy decisions are often not about some theoretical right and wrong, but about who will be advantaged and who will be disadvantaged. That’s a huge part of the equation and it is not always obvious. Knowing some groups are really pushing for something can often indicate a big part of that equation.

          Ughhh…such arguments make my head hurt. How can you base your decision not on “theoretical right or wrong” but on “who will be advantaged and who will be disadvantaged”? Without “right or wrong”, why does “advantaged or disadvantaged” matter?

          1. Never heard of this thing called “rent-seeking”, eh? You don’t think such information could, well, red flag such a thing?

            Additionally, support for many policy decisions involves making certain empirical determinations. As we are not all experts on many subjects or privy to certain information we have to rely on experts to some extent, and then the source becomes crucial in judging the weight of said authority (before any undergrad PHI 101ers start chanting “argument from authority” look in your textbooks about expert witnesses and authorities in the informal logic section).

            1. You don’t seem to understand ideological consistency. I can identify policies that are rent seeking and market skewing without even caring who is behind them. Policy support indicates more about the special interest than the special interest indicates about the policy.

              “As we are not all experts on many subjects”

              Speak for yourself. I take it upon myself to obtain knowledge before I make any decisions based on someone else’s judgment.

            2. Never heard of this thing called “rent-seeking”, eh? You don’t think such information could, well, red flag such a thing?

              I have definitely heard of the phrase, but since I consider rent seeking “wrong”, I am consistent in my reasoning. Without this value judgement, knowledge of the act of rent seeking is irrelevant when discussing support or rejection of such policy.

              You seem to believe that you can make a judgement on the criteria of “advantaged or disadvantaged”, without a moral valuation. How? Without the moral realm, knowing that someone will be “disadvantaged” is as useful a fact as they have red hair, in regards to making a judgement in policy.

              Additionally, support for many policy decisions involves making certain empirical determinations. As we are not all experts on many subjects or privy to certain information we have to rely on experts to some extent, and then the source becomes crucial in judging the weight of said authority (before any undergrad PHI 101ers start chanting “argument from authority” look in your textbooks about expert witnesses and authorities in the informal logic section).

              Undoubtedly, increasing one’s knowledge on a subject is the proper path for one who is trying to advocate for or against some policy, but again, the final valuation of the policy can be determined without any knowledge of who is in support of it. Every individual and group who is involved in the political realm is acting on self-interest.

    5. It also helps bigoted assholes and petty tyrants identify people that disagree with them, in order to fuck them over using any means at their disposal.

      I’m not saying the current crop of Democrats would deliberately use this information to go after and ruin the lives of people that disagree with them — oh wait, yes I am. They totally would. Just look at any Balko thread to see how people with power and little accountability behave to anyone that threatens him. Or look at any shitty little socialist dictatorship.

    1. This^^^^^

      1. It’s only a crime if Republicans do it!

  21. Kathleen Sebelius and Oily Robert Gibbs: Fuck you and your hateful politics. I say that without fear of an IRS audit. Oh, and Robert, I really meant just what I said.

    1. Easy for you to say, publius.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.