The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Meet Junius, the OG of Pseudonymous Trolls

A prominent critic of King George III demonstrates the value of anonymous speech. [UPDATE: Comments can now be posted.]


"Sir," the letter began. "The submission of a free people to the executive authority of government is no more than a compliance with laws which they themselves have enacted. While the national honour is firmly maintained abroad, and while justice is impartially administered at home, the obedience of the subject will be voluntary, cheerful, and, I might almost say, unlimited."

By contemporary standards, such a letter would be unobjectionable, and likely unnoticed. A paean to self-governance. But this letter was published on January 21, 1769, in London's Public Advertiser newspaper. At the time, King George III was facing resistance in the colonies, and such a letter reminded the British people of their civil liberties and right to self determination. The author signed the letter only as "Junius."

Junius's letters are among the most prominent examples of pseudonymous and anonymous speech that proliferated in England and the American colonies throughout the eighteenth century.

Between 1769 and 1772, Public Advertiser publisher Henry Sampson Woodfall would print more than sixty letters from and to Junius in either the newspaper or a book. Woodfall published these letters with care to not reveal the identity of Junius. In a private letter to Woodfall, Junius wrote that he suspected that Woodfall may need to communicate with him. "If that be the case, I beg that you will be particular; and also that you will tell me candidly whether you know or suspect who I am."

John Mason Good, the editor of an 1812 compilation of Junius's letters, wrote of the various locations where Junius asked Woodfall and other correspondents to leave letters to him, and the likelihood that Junius used his own intermediaries to safeguard his identity. "That a variety of schemes were invented and actually in motion to detect him there can be no doubt," Good wrote, "but the extreme vigilance he at all times evinced, and the honourable forbearance of Mr. Woodfall, enabled him to baffle every effort, and to persevere in his concealment to the last."

In a September 18, 1771, letter to radical politician John Wilkes, Junius wrote of the value of anonymity to his ability to deliver his message. "Besides every personal consideration, if I were known, I could no longer be an useful servant to the public," he wrote. "At present there is something oracular in the delivery of my opinions. I speak from a recess which no human curiosity can penetrate, and darkness, we are told, is one source of the sublime. The mystery of Junius increases his importance."

But Junius was also concerned that he might face retaliation for his strident views. In a private letter to Woodfall, Junius asked Woodfall to deliver a message to another man, but to send it in Woodfall's own handwriting to avoid Junius's handwriting being "too commonly seen." "I must be more cautious than ever," Junius wrote. "I am sure I should not survive a discovery three days; or, if I did, they would attaint me by bill." Junius asked Woodfall to change the drop-off point for their communications.

Junius's most controversial letter, however, was addressed to the king and published on December 19, 1769. It began: "Sir, It is the misfortune of your life, and originally the cause of every reproach and distress which has attended your government, that you should never have been acquainted with the language of truth, until you heard it in the complaints of your people."

Although Junius was not identifiable, Woodfall, as publisher, was. Six months later, he stood trial for seditious libel. The jury found him "guilty of printing and publishing Only," causing the judge to order a new trial. But the jury foreman from the first trial had destroyed the original copy of the newspaper, causing the judge to end the trial.

Junius was never definitively identified. Many speculated on the potential identities of the writer, and the most common candidate was Sir Philip Francis, a Parliament member. Yet even now, there is not a definitive consensus as to Junius's identity.

Based on Junius's own letters and the impact that they had, we can deduce many potential motivations for his seeking anonymity. These motivations apply not only in eighteenth-century England, but also in the modern disputes over online anonymity in the United States.

First is the Legal Motivation for anonymity. Exposure of his identity could lead to substantial criminal or civil liability for Junius. He had good reason to avoid the same criminal prosecution that Woodfall faced merely for publishing his letters.

Second is the Safety Motivation. Junius may have faced personal retaliation, such as being physically attacked, for criticizing some of the most powerful people in England. His opponents may have destroyed his property, or harmed his family. Junius's private letters suggested that he doubted whether he could survive unmasking.

Third is the Economic Motivation. Depending on his occupation, Junius may have lost his job if his name had been publicly associated with his writing. If Junius operated his own business, he may have faced a decline in revenues due to the controversy.

Fourth is the Privacy Motivation. Junius may have wanted to avoid public attention. Anonymity and privacy are separate concepts, but protecting privacy can help to protect anonymity, and vice versa. Junius may have wanted to separate his private life from his very public statements and the surrounding controversy. Junius appeared to consider his identity to be deeply private information, and safeguarding that information may have been essential to his protection of his right to be let alone.

Fifth is the Speech Motivation. His identity may have distracted readers from the content of his message, which was strong enough to upset the powerful and cause political change. For instance, his opponents may have accused Junius of making his arguments due to personal economic interests or grudges. By maintaining his pseudonymity, Junius forced his readers to focus on the substance of his arguments. Likewise, as Junius himself suggested, the mystery of Junius's identity may have drawn more attention to his writing. Had the writings been linked to the name of a politician or writer, they might not have had the same allure.

Sixth is the Power Motivation. By remaining anonymous, Junius had tremendous influence that he likely could not have had if he were forced to associate his identity with his words. Without anonymity, Junius may not have felt free to speak out against the king and others, so he simply would not have spoken at all. Because he was able to speak, Junius used his words to shape public opinion among the most powerful—and dangerous—men in England. For Junius and so many other dissidents, anonymity affords power that they otherwise never would have.

The next post will examine how the Supreme Court first applied these anonymity values to laws that required authors to disclose their real names.