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What Is the Right to Anonymous Speech?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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The right to anonymous speech is a political right granted in some nations allowing people to make communications anonymously. This right tends to be protected in nations that value freedom of expression, while more repressive governments do not consider this to be a right they should extend to their citizens. Even in countries where this right is considered important, there may be limitations for safety reasons, and periodic court cases challenging or defending anonymous speech may arise.

In Western political science, the concept of anonymous speech is ancient, with examples dating to Ancient Greece and Rome, where people spoke out anonymously or under pseudonyms. During the formation of the United States, one nation where free expression is particularly highly prized, some of the debate about the direction of the new nation took place anonymously. “Publius,” for example, was an anonymous identity used to sign some of the Federalist Papers.

In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled on multiple occasions that anonymous speech is protected under the First Amendment. It has made some exceptions to the rule; for instance, in Doe v. Reed, a case concerning petitions for ballot amendments and other political activities, the court ruled that anonymity was not protected. Organizations could disclose the identities of petition signers, just as political campaigns are obliged to publish information about donors.

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Areas where the right to anonymous speech can become cloudy typically include certain types of political expression as well as situations where speech poses a clear and present danger. If people hide behind anonymous identities to engage in hate speech, incentives toward violence, and similar activities, a court may rule that their speech is not protected. Some nations have stricter laws on this kind of speech and may be more aggressive about striking down the right to anonymous speech when it poses a safety risk.

Beliefs about the right to anonymous speech vary internationally and can shift over time within a given nation. Travelers may want to consider this issue if they plan to engage in political commentary or activities. It can also be an important topic online, where the location of servers can make a significant difference when law enforcement agents subpoena site operators to collect information about users.

If servers are in a nation that does not protect speech, such subpoenas are likely to stand up to legal challenges in the court. Conversely, in a more protected nation where anonymous speech is considered an important part of the political and social discourse, people may be able to successfully challenge such subpoenas and can avoid an order to turn over confidential information. If the protection of site users is likely to be an issue, it can also be advisable to discuss the situation with a hosting provider, as they may comply with subpoenas automatically rather than consulting individual site owners.

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