on anonymity and political speech

Walking home this morning from dropping Hanna off at work, I happened to hear Nina Totenberg's story on today's oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court over whether the constitutional right to privacy protects petition signers from having their names made public.

Transcript available at NPR.

While the case before the court involves an anti-gay petition to repeal a same-sex "everything-but-marriage" law in the state of Washington, the issue before the court is not so much about homophobia, per se as it is about the right to anonymity in political speech: does someone who signs a petition for issue X have the right to keep that act private? In the Washington case, when advocates of the everything-but-marriage law requested to review the petitions in order to check for fraud, the petitioners claimed that the right to privacy protected them from having to make the lists public. They argue that privacy is necessary in order to protect petition signers from harassment by their opponents.

So here's the thing. I realize that, in this country, we have a right to privacy when it comes to actual votes: I often talk openly about whom I am going to or did vote for, or where I stand on certain issues. But it is my right as a citizen not to be forced to show my hand if I choose not to. However, a petition is something different. I've signed a few petitions in my life: usually I've done so outside my hometown library, or via websites, or at the grocery store. I'm asked to include my name and address on the understanding that those who tally signatures have to determine -- at least in the case of alleged fraud -- that I am who I say I am. There's no implied or expected right to privacy here. I'm putting my name on a form in broad daylight, right below the last person who signed the damn paper and right above the line where the next person will sign theirs. It seems really disingenuous to come up post facto with the argument that signers have a right to anonymity which they were never promised in the first place. You can't sign a petition "X".

Unless, of course, that's your legal name.

What truly bothered me about the pro-privacy advocates in this story is their argument that acts of political speech need to be protected by anonymity so that people who speak up for a certain position can be shielded from having "uncomfortable conversations" with those who disagree with them.

"Uncomfortable conversations"?


We're at a point where people who are against same-sex marriage want the right to defend their (in my opinion bigoted) point of view by protesting via a petition drive, but also want the right to remain anonymous so that they don't have to have "uncomfortable conversations"?

Grow the fuck up already. Part of being a human being in this chaotic, messy, every-changing world of ours is, you know, sometimes interacting with people who hold different opinions from you. And possibly having conversation in which those different opinions come to light. Conversations that turn out to be awkward, stressful, painful, sometimes alienating.

Welcome to the world.

There's tons of ways to deal with this diversity of opinion. Learn to be confident in your own opinion. Learn to be comfortable speaking up for yourself while also being a good listener. Find like-minded supporters. Possibly (god forbid!) re-evaluate your position in light of new interactions and learn something.

But if you're going to sign a fucking petition asking voters to revoke the human rights of a certain proportion of the population, then I say you'd fucking well better be able to articulate your reasons. And be willing to do so in public. In the NPR piece, Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna defends disclosure laws on these grounds (though with less swearing).

McKenna replies that only one blogger said he wanted to encourage uncomfortable conversations. And he adds, "I don't think that encouraging uncomfortable conversations amounts to the kind of harassment or potential intimidation that would warrant keeping these petitions out of public view," he says.

"In fact, in a democracy, there are supposed to be conversations which are occurring about difficult or contentious political issues," McKenna says -- even if those conversations are uncomfortable.

Yes, it's important that you be protected from stalking behavior, from verbal abuse over the telephone or from (I'm speculating scenarios here) people who come to your place of business and interrupt your work to abuse you verbally or threaten physical violence. But this sort of behavior is already illegal. What's not illegal (thankfully!) is the right of person X to criticize (privately or publicly) person Z for an action or opinion of Z's that X finds misguided, hateful, or otherwise wrongheaded.

There are obviously more or less effective ways of having that conversation. I'm personally a fan of ill doctrine's approach.

What I am not a fan of is people who try to reinforce systems of oppression and exclusion through law and then argue they have a right to do so without taking flack for it, and without being held accountable. Once you start trying to force everyone around you to accept your version of morality, you lose your right to privacy on that particular issue. If you wanted to keep that opinion private, you should have kept it to yourself.


  1. It certainly seems the logical end these days that folks who choose their news, blogs and friends on the basis of opinions that reinforce their prejudices would be afraid of a conversation exposing them to another viewpoint. With the segmentation of public life into narrow slices we loose the discourse that allows for changes in our opinions. Sign the petition and put your hands back over your ears. Sigh!

  2. Well said. It seems that we definitely say if you want a petition to be taken seriously as a means of letting people express opinions, you have to be able to know that people aren't just signing fake names.

    That means you have to put your real name on it, and expect that people will know that because you signed that petition, you agree with what's on it.

    Now if you want to show up at a political rally with a mask and say you want to support but not be publicly associated with the opinions expressed there, well, that might be an interesting argument.

  3. @Mark, Thanks for visiting! And I agree about the increasing reluctance of people to speak to each other across political differences.

    @A'Llyn, Interesting point re: political rallies and anonymity. I'd agree that there are many places in our political life where people DO have the option for anonymity. Anonymous (or Pseudonymous) blogging, letter to the editor, letters to elected officials, even (as you say) showing up at a rally and remaining covered? As far as I know, those things are legal -- and someone whose mask, say, was ripped off at a political rally against their will could claim harassment. On a personal level, I think people should have the guts to put their name to their beliefs if they're going to speak for them in public spaces, but I also know that there are times when the personal cost for that is high -- and we do have ways for folks to speak out while protecting their privacy.

    But I don't think petitions come with the expectation of privacy. As you say, we have pretty clear laws about transparency in the political process. Campaign donations, as I understand it, are also liable to transparency laws: if you donate to a politician's campaign, you should expect that that information will enter the public record. Obviously, most people aren't going to care of Jane Doe donates $5 to her local Silly Party candidate . . . but if they DID, then they could find out that information.

    Anyway, thanks for the further thoughts.